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Buckyballs and Diamondoids Join Forces in Tiny Electronic Gadget

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An international team led by researchers at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University joined two offbeat carbon molecules – diamondoids, the square cages at left, and buckyballs, the soccer-ball shapes at right – to create “buckydiamondoids,” center. These hybrid molecules function as rectifiers, conducting electrons in only one direction, and could help pave the way to molecular electronic devices. (Image Credit: Manoharan Lab/Stanford University)

Scientists have married two unconventional forms of carbon – one shaped like a soccer ball, the other a tiny diamond – to make a molecule that conducts electricity in only one direction. This tiny electronic component, known as a rectifier, could play a key role in shrinking chip components down to the size of molecules to enable faster, more powerful devices. “We wanted to see what new, emergent properties might come out when you put these two ingredients together to create a ‘buckydiamondoid,’” said Hari Manoharan of the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES) at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “What we got was a basically a one-way valve for conducting electricity – clearly more than the sum of its parts.”  The research team included scientists from Stanford University, Belgium, Germany and Ukraine.

Many electronic circuits have three basic components: a material that conducts electrons; rectifiers, which commonly take the form of diodes, to steer that flow in a single direction; and transistors to switch the flow on and off. Scientists combined two offbeat ingredients – buckyballs and diamondoids – to create the new diode-like component. Buckyballs – short for buckminsterfullerenes – are hollow carbon spheres whose 1985 discovery earned three scientists a Nobel Prize in chemistry. Diamondoids are tiny carbon cages bonded together as they are in diamonds, but weighing less than a billionth of a billionth of a carat. Both are subjects of a lot of research aimed at understanding their properties and finding ways to use them. In 2007, a team led by researchers from SLAC and Stanford discovered that a single layer of diamondoids on a metal surface can efficiently emit a beam of electrons. Manoharan and his colleagues wondered: What would happen if they paired an electron-emitting diamondoid with another molecule that likes to grab electrons? Buckyballs are just that sort of electron-grabbing molecule. For this study, diamondoids were produced in the SLAC laboratory of SIMES researchers Jeremy Dahl and Robert Carlson, who are world experts in extracting the tiny diamonds from petroleum. They were then shipped to Germany, where chemists at Justus-Liebig University figured out how to attach them to buckyballs.