The team was initially researching in a different direction: they were trying to give carbon nanotubes (structures reminiscent of rolled-up sheets of graphite) a preferred orientation on a wafer by applying an electrical field as the tubes were being formed. This works very well with silicon dioxide wafers. On a sapphire support (sapphire is a form of aluminum oxide), on the other hand, it didn't work: the nanotubes were beautifully arranged in parallel, but with an orientation that was completely independent of the electrical field - even when no field was applied at all.
Closer examination of the sapphire surface solved the mystery: commercial sapphire wafers are generally not cut exactly along the plane of the crystal. Their surface is thus not completely smooth; instead, it has parallel steps - of atomic dimensions - between the different planes of the crystal. The nanotubes wind up lying along these steps. The researchers explain it like this: the nanotubes form from a catalyst of iron nanoparticles and are attracted to a local field created by the steps. It is clear that these iron particles don't like "climbing stairs;" instead, they "glide" along the inner edge of the step, as though on a track. Thus they remain continuously in contact with two surfaces, rather than just one, which seems to stabilize the catalyst. Just as an airplane leaves behind a condensation trail, the iron particles leave the newly formed nanotubes lying along their "tracks." The nanotubes even follow kinks in the steps, which are caused by defects in the crystal. This results in either straight or zigzag-shaped tubes, which are expected to have particularly interesting electronic properties.
"The orientation and form of the atomic steps on a crystal surface can be controlled by the cutting process, and defects can be created artificially," says Joselevich. "It should thus be possible to produce different nanowire arrangements in a controlled fashion."
Dr. Joselevich's findings appeared as the cover story of Angewandte Chemie. Dr. Ernesto Joselevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 972-8-934-2350.
Dr. Joselvich's research is supported by the Asher and Jeannette Alhadeff Research Award, the Ilse Katz Institute for Material Sciences and Magnetic Resonance Research, the Philip M. Klutznick Fund for Research, Sir Harry A.S. Djanogly, CBE, UK and Sylvia and Henry Legrain, Spain. He is the incumbent of the Dr. Victor L. Ehrlich Career Development Chair.
The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world's top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to 2,500 scientists, students, technicians and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.