Sticky self-assembly

University of Michigan researchers have discovered a way to self-assemble nanoparticles using sticky patches that make the particles group themselves together in programmed ways.

University of Michigan researchers have discovered a way to self-assemble nanoparticles into wires, sheets, shells and other structures using sticky patches that make the particles group themselves together in programmed ways. This method could be used to fabricate new materials and devices for nanotechnology.

Using computer simulation of model particles, Zhenli Zhang, U-M research fellow in chemical engineering, and Sharon Glotzer, U-M associate professor in chemical engineering, studied the self-assembly of particles with sticky molecular “patches” on their surfaces. The patches are discrete interaction sites that cause particles to stick together at just the right places to make the grouping organised.

The results of the simulations showed that if surfaces of particles could be patterned with patches of molecules, they could make the particles assemble into different shapes. The trick, according to the researchers, is using patches that are strongly directional and attract and repel specific parts of other particles, much like proteins do.

This finding is important because the biggest impediment to developing nanotechnology is figuring out how to build the tiny structures. Because they are so small, nanodevices will not be built in factories or on assembly lines. Rather, scientists must develop ways to make the devices assemble by themselves in precise ways for specific applications.

This type of self-assembly happens constantly in nature, but engineering it in the lab, so that eventually scientists can predict their shapes and use the shapes for specific applications, is another matter.

Many of the structures the U-M team were able to predict with the model will prove useful in device fabrication. For example, sheets of spheres with tuneable structures (an ordered arrangement of points that can be changed) may serve as novel materials with optical and mechanical properties.

The chains, rings and twisted and staircase assemblies could serve as basic structural units to further prepare materials with more complex structures such as tubes, helices and 3-D networks that could in turn, serve as scaffolds or templates for assembly of electronic or optical components, or as channels for transport of liquids or molecules.