Intricate patterns formed by granular materials under the influence of electrostatic fields have scientists at the U.S. Department of Energys Argonne National Laboratory dreaming of new ways to create smaller structures for nanotechnologies. With a combination of electric fields and fluid mixtures, researchers Igor Aronson, Maksim Sapozhnikov, Yuri Tolmachev and Wai Kwok can cause tiny spheres of bronze and other metals to self-assemble into crystalline patterns, honeycombs, pulsating rings and bizarre two-lobed structures that whirl like tiny propellers. Such self-assembling behavior could be exploited to create the next generation nanostructures or tiny micromechanical devices. Their work has been reported in the Physical Review Letters (Phys. Rev. Lett. 90, 114301, 2003).
The research started about four years ago, when Igor Aronson was studying the surprisingly regular patterns formed when granular materials like sand are vibrated, seeking clues to the dynamics of such substances. "Despite about a thousand years of practical experience, we still dont completely understand granular materials," Aronson said. "They can display the properties of solids or liquids, and behaviors that defy conventional physics."
Aronson and colleagues investigated the reaction of a very fine granular material in an electrostatic field. They placed a quarter-teaspoon of 100-micron bronze spheres between two transparent sheets coated with conducting material. Under high voltage, each bronze sphere acquires a charge from the bottom plate and is attracted to the upper sheet. The spheres reverse charge when they hit the upper sheet and are repelled back toward the lower sheet. As the process repeats 40 times per second, the bronze particles form a shimmering "gas" between the two plates. Groups of particles, responding to the electric field from the plates and from each other, tend to cluster together and coalesce into large, random groups.
Donna Jones Pelkie | EurekAlert!
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