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Watching Crystals Grow May Lead to Faster Electronic Devices

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Conventional theory says when films are being formed at the atomic scale, atoms land on top of each other and form mounds or "islands" and feel an energetic "pull" from other atoms that prevents them from hopping off the island's edges and crystallizing into smooth sheets. The result is rough spots on the thin films used to produce semiconductors. Cornell University-led researchers eliminated this pull by shortening the bonds between their particles. But they still saw particles hesitate at the island's edges.Image Credit: Rajesh Ganapathy, Sharon Gerbode, Mark Buckley, and Itai Cohen - Cornell University

The quest for faster electronic devices recently got something more than a little bump up in technological knowhow. Scientists at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. discovered that the thin, smooth, crystalline sheets needed to make semiconductors, which are the foundation of modern computers, might be grown into smoother sheets by managing the random darting motions of the atomic particles that affect how the crystals grow. Led by assistant professor of physics Itai Cohen at Cornell, researchers recreated conditions of layer-by-layer crystalline growth using particles much bigger than atoms, but still small enough that they behave like atoms. Similar to using beach balls to model the behavior of sand, scientists used a solution of tiny plastic spheres 50 times smaller than a human hair to reproduce the conditions that lead to crystallization on the atomic scale. With this precise modeling, they could watch how crystalline sheets grow. Using an optical microscope, the scientists could watch exactly what their "atoms"--actually, micron-sized silica particles suspended in fluid--did as they crystallized. What's more, they were able to manipulate single particles one at a time and test conditions that lead to smooth crystal growth. The video below is sped up by a factor of about 20. Video Credit: John Savage, Rajesh Ganapathy, and Itai Cohen -  Cornell University.
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