News Release

Led by Columbia Engineering, researchers build longest, highly conductive molecular nanowire 

The 2.6nm-long single molecule wire has quasi-metallic properties and shows an unusual increase of conductance as the wire length increases; its excellent conductivity holds great promise for the field of molecular electronics

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science

A brief abstract figure of this work.

image: Top: the two-step oxidation of the bis(triarylamines) molecular series. Bottom: the geometry of the highest conducting trimer (n=3) molecule in the molecular junction. Red and blue regions are artistic depictions on the coupling between the two edge states. view more 

Credit: Liang Li/Columbia University

New York, NY—July 7, 2022—As our devices get smaller and smaller, the use of molecules as the main components in electronic circuitry is becoming ever more critical. Over the past 10 years, researchers have been trying to use single molecules as conducting wires because of their small scale, distinct electronic characteristics, and high tunability. But in most molecular wires, as the length of the wire increases, the efficiency by which electrons are transmitted across the wire decreases exponentially.This limitation has made it especially challenging to build a long molecular wire--one that is much longer than a nanometer--that actually conducts electricity well.

Columbia researchers announced today that they have built a nanowire that is 2.6 nanometers long, shows an unusual increase in conductance as the wire length increases, and has quasi-metallic properties. Its excellent conductivity holds great promise for the field of molecular electronics, enabling electronic devices to become even tinier. The study is published today in Nature Chemistry.

Molecular wire designs

The team of researchers from Columbia Engineering and Columbia’s department of chemistry, together with  theorists from Germany and synthetic chemists in China, explored molecular wire designs that would support unpaired electrons on either end, as such wires would form one-dimensional analogues to topological insulators (TI) that are highly conducting through their edges but insulating in the center. 

While the simplest 1D TI is made of just carbon atoms where the terminal carbons support the radical states--unpaired electrons, these molecules are generally very unstable. Carbon does not like to have unpaired electrons. Replacing the terminal carbons, where the radicals are, with nitrogen increases the molecules’ stability. “This makes 1D TIs made with carbon chains but terminated with nitrogen much more stable and we can work with these at room temperature under ambient conditions,” said the team’s co-leader Latha Venkataraman, Lawrence Gussman Professor of Applied Physics and professor of chemistry.

Breaking the exponential-decay rule

Through a combination of chemical design and experiments, the group created a series of one-dimensional TIs and successfully broke the exponential-decay rule, a formula for the process of a quantity decreasing at a rate proportional to its current value. Using the two radical-edge states, the researchers generated a highly conducting pathway through the molecules and achieved a “reversed conductance decay,” i.e. a system that shows an increasing conductance with increasing wire length.

“What’s really exciting is that our wire had a conductance at the same scale as that of a gold metal-metal point contacts, suggesting that the molecule itself shows quasi-metallic properties,” Venkataraman said. “This work demonstrates that organic molecules can behave like metals at the single-molecule level in contrast to what had been done in the past where they were primarily weakly conducting.“

The researchers designed and synthesized a bis(triarylamines) molecular series, which exhibited properties of a one-dimensional TI by chemical oxidation. They made conductance measurements of single-molecule junctions where molecules were connected to both the source and drain electrodes. Through the measurements, the team showed that the longer molecules had a higher conductance, which worked until the wire was longer than 2.5 nanometers, the diameter of a strand of human DNA. 

Laying the groundwork for more technological advancements in molecular electronics

“The Venkataraman lab is always seeking to understand the interplay of physics, chemistry, and engineering of single-molecule electronic devices,” added Liang Li, a PhD student in the lab, and a co-first author of the paper. “So creating these particular wires will lay the groundwork for major scientific advances in understanding transport through these novel systems. We’re very excited about our findings because they shed light not only on fundamental physics, but also on potential applications in the future.”

The group is currently developing new designs to build molecular wires that are even longer and still highly conductive. 


About the Study

Journal: Nature Chemistry

The study is titled: “Highly conducting single-molecule topological insulators based on mono- and di-radical cations.” 

Authors are: Liang Li1, Jonathan Z. Low1, Jan Wilhelm2, Guanming Liao3, Suman Gunasekaran1, Claudia R. Prindle1, Rachel L. Starr1, Dorothea Golze4, Colin Nuckolls1, Michael L. Steigerwald1, Ferdinand Evers*2, Luis M. Campos*1, Xiaodong Yin*3, Latha Venkataraman*1,5
1Department of Chemistry, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, United States
2Institute of Theoretical Physics, University of Regensburg, Regensburg, Germany
3Beijing Key Laboratory of Photoelectronic/Electrophotonic Conversion Materials, School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Beijing Institute of Technology, Beijing, 102488, P. R. China
4Technische Universität Dresden, König-Bau, Bergstrasse 66 c, 01069 Dresden, Germany
5Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, United States

 The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, under grant DMR-1807580.

 The authors declare no financial or other conflicts of interest.  



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