Argonne National Laboratory

Four fantastic materials found at Argonne

By Katie Elyce JonesApril 3, 2017

New materials are the seeds for new technologies. Here are four discoveries with never-before-seen properties that could lead to new devices, innovations, or breakthroughs.

1. LIGHTNING-FAST GRAPHENE

The first scientists to create graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms, did so by progressively peeling away layers of graphite, the stuff of No. 2 pencils. Despite its origins as pencil ash, graphene is extremely hard and strong, tougher than diamond, and thin and flexible. As a single layer, graphene is a semiconductor, rapidly ushering electrons across its 2-D plane. In fact, electrons can travel up to 100 times faster through graphene than the silicon used in computer chips.

Today at Argonne, researchers are exploring this amazing material’s potential for electronics and other applications by creating different 2-D graphene structures—sheets, ribbons, scrolls, and more. For one study, scientists are designing circuits of graphene ribbons as thin as 50 atoms wide to take advantage of the super speed of its electrons for faster, more energy-efficient electronics. Specifically, they are observing the circuits’ band structure, a directional property of semiconducting materials that must be understood before designing new devices

2. PROTECTIVE NANOSHIELD

Roughly 80% of the cost of wind energy is tied up in machinery. Exposed to variable and often extreme conditions, turbines need to be tough. Resilient, long-lasting gears, rotors, and other machine parts are important to advancing the future of wind energy. But inevitably, after so many stop-and-go rotations, turbines begin to feel stress in the form of tiny fractures known as micropitting that lead to bigger problems as rotations continue. 

Luckily, Argonne has scientists who specialize in understanding the nanoscale vulnerabilities of mechanical parts and developing protective materials like coatings to reduce the friction that leads to cracks and pits. One such coating, called N3FC, has diamond-like carbon bonds—but instead of being hard as diamond, N3FC is relatively soft, providing a flexible shield that absorbs the impacts of cranking and sliding. 100 million test cycles later—about three times the typical number of test cycles—N3FC-coated parts have not incurred significant micropitting, which is already a pretty amazing track record.

3. UNBREAKABLE BOROPHONE

Something special happens when you take atoms of the carbon-like element boron and spread them into a single layer: you transform a hunk of nonmetallic boron into a brand new 2-D material known as borophene. As the first metallic and lightest 2-D material that also sports a high tensile strength, or resistance to breakage, borophene could lend greater flexibility and durability to electronic devices and solar cells at a lower environmental cost than industry staples like silicon.

Argonne scientists were the first to create borophene, and did so in a way that is easier and less toxic than previous experiments synthesizing boron-based materials.

4. MAGNETIC CHARGE ICE

In the game “20 Questions,” a player must guess an object chosen by another player by asking a series of “yes” or “no” questions. Working within similar limits, computers store information based on only two states created by the opposing forces of tiny magnets (represented as 0s and 1s). If you have ever wanted to say “maybe” in 20 Questions, you understand why researchers want to develop technologies that can store information in multiple states: you can reach a complex answer much faster.

Recently, scientists at Argonne developed a 2-D material called “rewritable magnetic charge ice” that can store eight units of information—quite an electromagnetic vocabulary compared to yes and no. After separating magnetic spins and charges to achieve greater control over the magnetic charges, researchers used a local nano-magnet to “tune” eight charge configurations for relaying information. An external magnetic field can also be applied to easily erase and rewrite information, opening up the possibility for new computing functionalities.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.