Single molecules make electrical contact

Researchers in the US believe they have solved the problem of manipulating single molecules so that their electronic capabilities can be tested and then applied.

Molecular-scale electronics has been widely touted as ‘the next step’ in electronic miniaturisation, with theory and research suggesting that single molecules may have the capability to take the place of today’s much larger electronic components.

A critical problem, however, has been in manipulating single molecules so that their electronic capabilities can be tested and then applied.

‘Progress in the field has been hampered by two problems,’ said Arizona State University Chemistry Professor Devens Gust. ‘The first has been in making robust, reproducible electrical connections to both ends of molecules. After this has been achieved, the next problem is knowing how many molecules there actually are between the electrical contacts.’

‘The results of studying the conductivity of molecules attached to wires have been all over the map,’ said ASU Professor of Physics Stuart Lindsay. ‘For example, according to published articles, DNA has been found to be everything from an insulator to a superconductor. The problem has been that no one has been able to reliably connect a single molecule.’

Past attempts to measure the electrical properties of small numbers of molecules have given a wide range of values for their conductivities. Most previous studies have relied on a ‘mechanical’ contact between molecules and a metallic wire, where the two are simply pushed together.

‘Any hobbyist knows that the best electrical contacts are made by soldering the components together,’ Gust said. ‘What we’ve needed is a way to ‘solder’ individual molecules on a molecular ‘circuit board’.

This has now been done by a multidisciplinary team that has found a method for creating through-bond electrical contacts with single molecules and the achievement of reproducible measurements of the molecules’ conductivity. The researchers began with a uniform atomic layer of gold atoms, and attached long, octanethiol ‘insulator’ molecules to it through chemical bonds, forming a fur-like coating of aligned molecules.

They removed a few of the insulators using a solvent and replaced them with molecules of 1,8-octanedithiol, a molecule that is similar, but is capable of bonding with gold at both ends and acting as a molecular ‘wire’.

Two nanometer gold particles were then added to the solvent, where they bonded to the free ends of the 1,8-octanedithiol molecules, creating a bonded metallic ‘contact’ at either end of the conducting molecules.

A gold-coated conducting atomic force microscope probe – a conducting probe with an atom-sized tip – was then run across the surface and conductivity was measured when it made contact with the gold particles.

When electrical measurements were made on over 4,000 gold particles, virtually all measurements fell into one of five groups (five distinct conductivity curves). The conductivity curves were reportedly distinct whole number multiples of a single, ‘fundamental’ curve.

The fundamental curve is said to represent conduction by a single molecule of octanedithiol attached to the two gold contacts. When more than a single molecule was bound, each additional molecule increased the current capacity by the single unit amount of current that could be carried by one molecule.

When the probe encountered octanethiol ‘insulator’ molecules, which could not bond with a gold particle, a much higher electrical resistance was recorded.

‘The molecule becomes a much better conductor when it is ‘soldered’ into the circuit by the bonds to gold at each end,’ Gust said. ‘This suggests how we can wire single molecule components into a molecular circuit board, and lays some important groundwork for doing practical molecular electronics.’