A team of scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Connecticut have developed a customizable nanomaterial that combines metallic strength with a foam-like ability to compress and spring back.
“We engineered materials that can store and release an unprecedented amount of mechanical energy on the nanoscale—for its weight, one of the highest ever among known high-strength engineering materials,” said Brookhaven Lab scientist and principal investigator Chang-Yong Nam. “And our technique fits into existing industrial semiconductor processes, which means the jump from the lab to practical applications should be straightforward.”
The study, published on October 19 in the journal Nano Letters, describes nanostructures spanning just a few billionths of a meter in size composed of organic and inorganic molecules. These custom-patterned structures—like the pillars explored in this study—will enable more advanced nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS), for example in devices that require ultra-small springs, levers, or motors. NEMS technology that could potentially exploit this new material includes ultra-sensitive accelerometers, multi-functional resonators, and biosynthetic artificial muscles.
“The breakthrough relied on us developing the synthesis,” Nam added. “We linked expertise in atomic layer deposition and electron beam lithography with innovative vapor-phase material infiltration to bring these new materials to life.”
The collaboration sought to enhance one specific parameter: the “modulus of resilience,” or the measure of a material’s ability to absorb mechanical energy and then release it without suffering structural damage. This requires both high mechanical strength and low stiffness—a rare combination, as those qualities usually increase simultaneously.
“Our organic-inorganic hybrid materials exhibit metal-like high strength but foam-like low stiffness,” said coauthor Keith Dusoe of the University of Connecticut, who conducted the nanomechanical testing and theoretical analysis. “This unique coupling of mechanical properties accounts for our material’s ability to store and release an extraordinarily large amount of elastic energy.”