Liquid metals that create nanostructure - it’s the little details that count

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Liquid metals that create nanostructure - it’s the little details that count

8 March, 2021

Steph Annual ReportA year of disrupted travel plans hasn’t stopped PhD candidate and MacDiarmid Institute researcher Stephanie Lambie from successfully kick-starting a new collaboration with researchers at an Australian Centre of Excellence.

Lambie collaborated with MacDiarmid Institute Co-Director Associate Professor Nicola Gaston and Associate Investigator Dr Krista Steenbergen, as well as Future Low Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET) researchers at the University of New South Wales on the research, just published in Nature Nanotechnology.

The MacDiarmid Institute/FLEET team looked at the properties of liquid metals, in this case, bismuthgallium alloys, which create nanoscale patterns, that could be useful in nanoelectronics, or that could play a role as catalysts to speed up chemical processes using low amounts of energy.

“We designed our calculations around the experiments that were carried out by the researchers at FLEET.” says Lambie, who is completing her doctorate at the University of Auckland.

A lot of these experimental techniques aren’t designed to look at the subsurface metallic structure. Doing these computational calculations provides an extra level of insight.

Stephanie Lambie PhD Student

FLEET Chief Investigator, Professor Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh, explains the need for theoretical insight into pattern formation thus. “We serendipitously observed this deviation from the old metallurgy at the interface of liquid metals, where traces of secondary metals created fascinating patterns. Our colleagues at the MacDiarmid Institute, supported by the joint FLEET-MacDiarmid program, were able to establish the underlying theory that governed the displacement of the secondary atoms toward the interfacial regions”.

Potential applications of the patterning that these liquid metal alloys can create include nanoelectronics, but perhaps most excitingly, the catalytic conversion of CO2 into useful hydrocarbons or energy storage. Lambie says despite Covid-19 forcing her to shelve plans to visit her collaborators across the Tasman, the team has stayed productive.

“We meet virtually every couple of weeks. I’m still very keen to get over and see them and they are keen to have me.” Lambie is in her first year as a PhD student but into her fourth year as a MacDiarmid Institute collaborator, having worked with MacDiarmid Institute researchers Dr Anna Garden and Associate Professor Franck Natali as part of her master’s degree.

“I like seeing the patterns and what we can figure out from them,” says Lambie of the computational modelling work she undertakes.

"With this liquid metal technology, we aren’t really sure what the potential applications will actually be. But it is cool and exciting and new and I spend a lot of time thinking about it.”

As well as the collaborations with MacDiarmid Institute researchers that have been integral to her studies to date, Lambie said a highlight had been working with inspiring women in science.

I’ve worked with lots of amazing women who all know each other through MacDiarmid, I’m really grateful to have such awesome role models and mentors.

Stephanie Lambie PhD Student

Lambie hoped a planned research trip to Berlin would come off in 2021 as the world opened up in the wake of Covid-19. In the meantime, she will continue her work on science that she admits appears obscure to that outside of the field.

"It’s complicated. But in this game, the finer details are just as important as the big scale changes."

“The biggest discoveries can only happen because other people have spent hours and hours iterating and refining.”