The technique could offer a way of building new data storage devices that are orders of magnitude smaller than existing silicon-based counterparts.
Nottingham professor Neil Champness explained the breakthrough process involves introducing a ‘guest’ molecule known as a buckyball — or C60 for its 60 carbon atoms — onto a surface patterned by an array of tetracarboxylic acid molecules.
‘The reason why [a buckyball was] chosen is because it has three-dimensional shapes; it is a sphere,’ he said. ‘The shape of it is what encourages this three-dimensional growth away from the surface.’
Champness said his research in this area goes back to 2003 when he and fellow colleagues discovered a way to position molecules on a surface in two dimensions.
‘Over that period there was a number of groups around the world trying to develop this idea but what couldn’t be done is building that structure up from the surface as well,’ he said.
This recent innovation is the culmination of four years of research led by Champness and Prof Peter Beton from the School of Chemistry and the School of Physics and Astronomy, which was funded a total of £3.5m from the EPSRC.
Champness envisioned that some of the ‘futuristic’ applications for the research could include molecular computing, which would involve storing information in molecules instead of silicon.
‘The components that store information in silicon are relatively large in comparison with molecules,’ he said. ‘Your average molecule is about a nanometre in size. If you can store information in something that size you can store far more information.’