May 14, 2012

Duke Team Provides Groundwork To Make Electric Crystals

A team of Duke University engineers plan to send us even further into the future as they have compiled a “master ingredient list” to create the next generation of quantum electronics.

The teams list includes more than 2,000 compounds in this master list and hopes to drive the study of quantum physics even further.

At the center of their studies are topological insulators (TI). These man made crystals serve multiple purposes as they are able to generate electricity on their surfaces and then insulate this electricity in their cores.

Such crystals could be used to generate electricity more effectively and efficiently than conventional devices or wires, and according to the Duke team of engineers, these TIs are ideal candidates for quantum electronics.

The discovery of these TIs have interested scientists for some time, but generating them hasn´t been easy to do. Until now, quantum physicists and scientists have had to use various trial-and-error methods to perfect the situations in which to create such crystals.

According to a Duke press release, the key to manufacturing these TIs lies in a mathematical formula which can unlock the data and magic powers stored in potential TI ingredients. Armed with the mathematic formula and the recipe list, the Duke engineers hope to be 2 steps closer to generating these crystals.

Additionally, Stefano Curtarolo, professor of mechanical engineering and materials sciences and physics at Duke´s Pratt School of Engineering and founder of the Duke´s Center for Materials Genomics has created a repository of material genomes, giving scientists access to prior formulas and combinations, eliminating their trial-and-error methods when finding these crystals.

The press release likens the formula and recipe to mixing a can of paint at a hardware store. Ideally, the team will be able to use different combinations of different compounds and create Tis to be used for specific purposes. This new project will be the keystone of the new Duke Center for Materials Genomics.

“While extremely helpful and important, a database is intrinsically a sterile repository of information, without a soul and without life. We need to find the materials´ ℠genes,´” said Curtarolo. “We have developed what we call the ℠topological descriptor,´ that when applied to the database can provide the directions for producing crystals with desired properties.”

Duke´s new process will allow scientists to determine the outcome of a combination of compounds before they actually try them out.

Curtarolo says these compounds can fall anywhere on a spectrum, the bottom end of which is listed as “fragile.”

“We can rule those combinations out because, what good is a new type of crystal if it would be too difficult to grow, or if grown, would not likely survive?” Curtarolo said.
Moving further up the list, he says a second group of compound combinations in the middle are deemed as “feasible.”

Combinations which fall on the top end of the spectrum are what excite Curtarolo, which are described as “robust.”

Crystals formed in the “robust” end of the spectrum are easily sustained, easily produced, and very stable. Additionally, these crystals can be grown in any direction, which means they can be tailor made to fit any electrical processes.

TIs are still in the experimental stage, but Curtarolo believes these new tools will provide scientists with a powerful new framework to engineer a wide array of these crystals.

This Duke research has been reported online in the journal Nature Materials.


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