World's Thinnest Electrical Wire is Only Three Atoms Wide

Interesting Engineering

Scientists have officially developed the world's thinnest possible electrical wire measuring three atoms wide.

World's Thinnest Electrical Wire is Only Three Atoms Wide[Image Source: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory]

The work comes from scientists at Stanford University and the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. They determined how to use diamondoids, the smallest possible bits of diamonds, to put together the thinnest electrical wire.

Nicholas Melosh of Stanford University said, “Their minuscule size is important because a material that exists in just one or two dimensions – as atomic-scale dots, wires or sheets – can have very different, extraordinary properties compared to the same material made in bulk."

Diamondoids attach to sulfur and copper atoms, thus creating the wire. The cage-like structures come from carbon and hydrogen bonds. They naturally occur in petroleum fluid.

The electrical wire is assembled on a nano-scale level similar to molecular LEGO. The molecules link up in a unique way which could result in fabrics which generate electricity through movement.

"Much like LEGO blocks, they only fit together in certain ways that are determined by their size and shape," said researcher Fei Hua Li.

Hao Yan, a researcher from Stanford University said, "What we have shown here is that we can make tiny, conductive wires of the smallest possible size that essentially assemble themselves".

According to Yan, "The process is a simple, one-pot synthesis. You dump the ingredients together and you can get results in half an hour. It's almost as if the diamondoids know where they want to go."

The animation below illustrates the formation of the diamondoid string.

World's Thinnest Electrical Wire is Only Three Atoms Wide[Image Source: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory]

The diamondoids attach to one another by strong forces called van der Waals forces. These forces ensure that each diamondoid sticks to the next, thus forming a long chain.

"The copper and sulphur atoms of each building block wound up in the middle, forming the conductive core of the wire, and the bulkier diamondoids wound up on the outside, forming the insulating shell." said researcher Fei Hua Li.

Nano-wire, which can conduct electrical current, isn't a new discovery. However, a nano-wire of this width makes it the smallest structure developed.

"Other molecular self-assembly methods have been tried, yet balancing the delicate interplay between attractive and repulsive forces to get just the size you want has proven very difficult," a team member, Nicholas Melosh, told IEEE Spectrum.

He also said "Achieving a 'solid core' of a three-atom cross section is ideal. It's small enough to exhibit unique functionality, yet it can tolerate single defects or strains since there is still a pathway for the electrons to flow."

The potential uses for such small technology appear boundless. The researchers hope to see more work done on these wires and also integrating these wires with other nanotechnology.