A new collaborative study led by a research team at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and University of California, Los Angeles could provide engineers new design rules for creating microelectronics, membranes, and tissues, and open up better production methods for new materials. At the same time, the research, published in the journal Science, helps uphold a scientific theory that has remained unproven for over a century.
Just as children follow a rule to line up single file after recess, some materials use an underlying rule to assemble on surfaces one row at a time, according to the study done at PNNL, the University of Washington, UCLA, and elsewhere.
Nucleation — that first formation step — is pervasive in ordered structures across nature and technology, from cloud droplets to rock candy. Yet despite some predictions made in the 1870s by the American scientist J. Willard Gibbs, researchers are still debating how this basic process happens.
The new study verifies Gibbs’ theory for materials that form row by row. Led by UW graduate student Jiajun Chen, working at PNNL, the research uncovers the underlying mechanism, which fills in a fundamental knowledge gap and opens new pathways in materials science.