Liquid metal discovery described as a ‘once in a decade’ breakthrough

20 Oct 2017

Image: Peyker/Shutterstock

Researchers are getting quite excited after using liquid metal to produce 2D materials that have never been seen before in nature.

Researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia are claiming their latest breakthrough is a “once in a decade” discovery after they successfully used liquid metal to create 2D structures just a few atoms thick.

If you are thinking this sounds similar to the one atom-thick material graphene, then you’d be wrong. These new materials have never been seen before in nature (unlike graphene’s forebear, graphite).

Publishing their findings in the journal Science, the researchers dissolved metals in liquid metal to create very thin oxide layers, which previously did not exist as layered structures and which are easily peeled away.

When these oxide layers are extracted, they can be used within transistor components and, being incredibly thin, they can make electronics much faster while using less power.

The breakthrough came when the team used non-toxic alloys of gallium – a metal similar to aluminium – as a reaction medium to cover the surface of the liquid metal with atomically thin oxide layers of the added metal, rather than the naturally occurring gallium oxide.

Liquid metal

A liquid metal ‘slug’ and its clear atom-thick ‘trail’ shows the breakthrough in action. Image: RMIT University

Anyone can make it

“This oxide layer can then be exfoliated by simply touching the liquid metal with a smooth surface,” said Dr Torben Daeneke who was involved in the research.

“Larger quantities of these atomically thin layers can be produced by injecting air into the liquid metal, in a process that is similar to frothing milk when making a cappuccino.”

What makes this breakthrough even more impressive is that the process is incredibly cheap and easy to do, so much so that it could be done on a kitchen stove by someone without a scientific background.

Speaking of its potential in the future, lead researcher Prof Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh sees it as opening a new chapter in previously unseen areas.

“We predict that the developed technology applies to approximately one-third of the periodic table. Many of these atomically thin oxides are semiconducting or dielectric materials,” he said.

“Semiconducting and dielectric components are the foundation of today’s electronic and optical devices. Working with atomically thin components is expected to lead to better, more energy-efficient electronics. This technological capability has never been accessible before.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic