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Scientists Build Graphene From Scratch, Atom By Atom 185

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-bet-that-goes-quick dept.
MrSeb writes "You've heard of 'designer babies,' the idea that you can customize a baby by altering its DNA, but now a team of researchers from Stanford University and the Department of Energy have meddled around with the very fabric of reality and created the very first 'designer electrons.' The bulk of the universe is made up from just a few dozen elements, and each of these elements is made up of just a few subatomic particles: electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, and so on. For the most part, the properties of every material — its flexibility, strength, conductivity — is governed by the bonds between its constituent atoms, which in turn dictate a molecule's arrangement of electrons. In short, if you can manually move electrons around, you can create different or entirely new materials. That's exactly what Stanford University has done: Using a scanning tunneling microscope, the team of researchers placed individual carbon monoxide molecules on a clean sheet of copper to create 'molecular graphene' — an entirely new substance that definitely isn't graphene, but with electrons that act a lot like graphene (abstract). It is now possible, then, for scientists to create entirely new materials or tweak existing materials — like silicon or copper, or another important element — to make them stronger or more conductive. Where will this particular avenue lead us?"
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Scientists Build Graphene From Scratch, Atom By Atom

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  • Alchemy? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:08PM (#39392415)

    Is this alchemy?

    • Re:Alchemy? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Hartree (191324) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:35PM (#39392543)

      No, it's not alchemy.

      It's just a slight riff on things we've been doing for a long time. Placing atoms or molecules in layers or patterns so that their associated electrons have certain characteristics.

      We've been doing patterning of atoms/molucules with STMs for decades now.

      It's interesting work, but the description seems awfully breathless.

      "Meddling with the very fabric of reality"?

      Gimme a break. *eye-roll*

      • Indeed. The article appears to have been written by a wide-eyed journalist with a poor grasp of basic physics and chemistry. The authors confusion between electrons and atoms is clear from the text.

        One slightly mitigating factor is the nature of the research, which appears to use physical arrangements of atoms to induce new types of electro-chemical bonding. The research appears to cajole electrons into various chemical bond arrangements by moving C-O molecules into patterns upon a copper grid. It appears t

        • I see two outputs of this research:

          1. Energy requirement to make/break atomic bonds at the elemental level
          2. nano scale construction

          It will take knowledge about the actual energy cost to assemble a material at this level before we can begin production using nano tech be it nanites or other methods.

          Seriously, the main point here is how much energy does it take to just manufacture anything we use today. Call it calories, joules or btu's but it all refers to the same thing. Energy. So how much does it cost it to d

      • by alexgieg (948359)

        "Meddling with the very fabric of reality"? Gimme a break. *eye-roll*

        True enough. Something that'd merely *approach* meddling with the fabric of reality would be, let's say, some kind of bomb that once detonated changed the local space-time curvature, as in, were you to bring a ruler and/or a clock and you'd notice now empty space itself was measuring differently, provided "measuring" was still a meaningful concept. To actually meddle with reality, though, you'd need something way more powerful, let's say, a way to make math itself work differently there, as in, "over there

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by burningcpu (1234256)
        This comment on the main page does a better job of explaining what is going on than the article and summary.
        You are not doing a good job of explaining what is going on (mainly because it is hard to do in one article and is beyond the scope of what your editor wanted). Each different element has a differing ability to attract electrons, this is based upon the number of orbitals filled, or left vacant from their spot in the atomic table. In general elements react according to how many orbitals they have o
      • by tmosley (996283)
        To be fair, kicking over a rock is also meddling with the fabric of reality.
      • Re:Alchemy? (Score:5, Funny)

        by Ihmhi (1206036) <> on Saturday March 17, 2012 @11:40PM (#39393243)

        "Meddling with the very fabric of reality"?

        Gimme a break. *eye-roll*

        Yeah, they're doing that over at CERN anyway. You haven't lived until you've shaken hands with your nega-universe self and then awkwardly made out with each other. His goatee was kinda itchy though.

      • by multiplexo (27356)

        It's interesting work, but the description seems awfully breathless.

        "Meddling with the very fabric of reality"?

        Gimme a break. *eye-roll*

        No kidding, it doesn't count as "meddling with the fabric of reality" until you're fucking around with the value of Planck's constant or c.

    • by poity (465672)

      the forces holding the nucleus together is many MANY times greater than the bonds holding molecules together (think difference between nuclear bomb vs acid/base reaction). IANAPhysicist, but I think the only place you can get anything close to alchemy would be in a nuclear reactor (nuclear decay would be a kind of undirected alchemy). This process seems to me like "chemistry one-atom-at-a-time." Imagine regular chemistry as making bread dough, you put flour and water together and get an uneven (at the molec

    • Is this alchemy?

      Of course it is.

      I guess the best we can hope for (and I'm completely serious here) is that this team of researchers from Stanford and the DOE spent a little time doing purification rites and getting their heads straight before undertaking these experiments. For their sake and ours.

      From Isaac Newton and Paracelsus, Flamel and Giordano Bruno, Trithemius, Trismegistus, Oppenheimer and right on down to Feynman, the guys who deal in and mess with the fundamentals have known that you've got to ge

    • by Shavano (2541114)

      More like bullshit, or at best wild overstatement of what they did.

      The article epitomizes what's wrong with science reporting. You either have a scientist talking to a complete ignoramus who is totally unable to understand what it is that the scientist is describing, or you have the even worse situation of a scientist who knows the reporter is completely ignorant and dumbs down his explanation to a TV science-fiction level or makes completely false claims in order to grab headlines.

      "The behavior of electrons in materials is at the heart of essentially all of today's technologies," said Hari Manoharan, associate professor of physics at Stanford and a member of SLAC's Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science, who led the research. "We're now able to tune the fundamental properties of electrons so they behave in ways rarely seen in ordinary materials."

      Manoharan claims that th

      • Re:Alchemy? (Score:5, Informative)

        by semi-extrinsic (1997002) <> on Sunday March 18, 2012 @09:05AM (#39394873)

        Well it turns out that if the author's article isn't misquoting Manoharan, he actually did claim that the electrons had no mass and were moving at the speed of light. That would be a huge scientific breakthrough if it were true.

        As a physicist, I would say that Manoharan was probably spot on, but the journalist failed to understand and relay him correctly. You're correct that "massless electrons moving at lightspeed" is a scientific breakthrough, that's why it was awarded the Nobel prize in 2010.

        To explain: in graphene, the dispersion relation becomes a bit funny. See explanation on Wikipedia []. This means that electrons behave as if they were massless and moving at the speed of light. They are neither, of course, they just behave as if they are.

        Car analogy: if you drive your car on ice covered with water, it will behave as if it had no brakes. It still has brakes, it just behaves as if it didn't.

    • First: Turning another material into gold has already been done []. It is just more expensive than natural gold. Done by science (it works, bitches).

      Second: What alchemics means (in opposition to modern chemistry) is that, instead of experimenting, repeating experiments, validating theories, you just would get a bunch of philosophical gibberish about the "inherent" qualitites(good/bad for the souls, its "affinity", it is earth, fire or....) of this or that compound, that you need to perform certain mistical ri

    • by funkboy (71672)

      My question is:

      Is this the first time a first-post has been modded +5 Insightful?

  • "Transparent aluminum.... It's all there, but it would take years to figure out the dynamics!"

  • by Kawahee (901497) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:14PM (#39392435) Homepage Journal

    Where will this particular avenue lead us?

    Space Elevators.

  • Issues of scale (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ancienthart (924862) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:19PM (#39392467)

    It is now possible, then, for scientists to create entirely new materials or tweak existing materials — like silicon or copper, or another important element — to make them stronger or more conductive. Where will this particular avenue lead us?

    Nowhere, unless you only want blocks of it 1 or 2 nanometers across, and are prepared to take a few hours to manufacture it.
    In this case, a scanning tunnelling microscope is being used by having a single massive (on an atomic scale) probe manipulating single atoms at a time. Until we can control millions of atoms at this degree of resolution AND at the same time (smaller parallel probes, or some fancy trick with complex electrical fields on a single probe tip), this is scientifically interesting, but useless for the bulk manufacture the poster hints at.

    • Re:Issues of scale (Score:5, Insightful)

      by dbIII (701233) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:33PM (#39392531)
      Are you merely another "wake me up when you can buy it all Walmart" cargo cult luddite or do you set your sights higher?
      Science is often a series of steps instead of great breakthoughs. For example the aluminium metal used around you today was not initially produced by the current method, but instead by an incredibly difficult and expensive method which later inspired other ways to produce it.
      Currently we don't know the best way to make graphene but doing it the difficult way that will actually work may inspire a better way to do it and may uncover materials we've never seriously thought of because there's no obvious simple way to do it.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        "... graphene".

        We may not know the best way to make it, but we sure know one that's a hell of a lot simpler and more scalable than assembling it atom by atom, and that's the technique where you pull individual molecular layers off graphite by sticking a piece of sticky tape to it and ripping it off quickly. A chinese factory full of workers doing that all day long will produce a ton of graphene a hell of a lot more quickly and cheaply than anyone with an AFM.

      • My comment was not on the value of the research, but on the lack of vision expressed in the introduction.
        "Wow, we can shift atoms around, we can make new materials." Um, not yet, you can't, and not for a fair few years either.

        A better response to this new approach might be "Right, now we've got a handle on individual atoms, what cool experiments can we conduct?" As point of fact, you'll find that I see the TRUE value of this as a research tool, rather than just a future production technique.

        And for th

        • by dbIII (701233)
          Sorry, but there are a lot of those anti-science idiots (who still love technology) on this site these days and I misinterpreted what you wrote entirely and mistook you for one.
    • This is "useless" with regards to bulk manufacturing procedures as proposed today...

      Step 1 is always to figure out whether something is even possible.
      What this shows us is that we do have the ability to "dial up" matter characteristics on-demand. Sure, it is highly impractical today, but that is in no way to say that significant research won't now be undertaken to take what now is a cool proof-of-concept and create a practical, workable model to exploit the findings of what we have discovered.

      Decades a
      • Yes, but the original poster made it seem that the most important implication was "customisable materials", which is a fair few years in the future.
        I'd be more interested in hearing about the types of matter-matter interactions this enables scientists to investigate.

        "What happens when a nobel gas atom is brought near other atoms? Can it's reactivity be altered by near-space effects? Do one-dimensional arrays (not imbedded in support materials) have intrinsic properties that differ from 2 or 3-D arrays?

    • True, but it's certainly a field with potential to do amazing things in the future. Hopefully a future sooner than later.
      • Yes, that was actually my point. The poster's last comment made it seem that the only purpose for pursuing this would be to get a new manufacturing technique.
    • Actually - you can already buy nano dip-pen arrays commercially that can be used for this sort of manufacture.

      Basically they are arrays of thousands of atomic force microscopy micro-cantilever tips which can be used to manipulate at the nano-scale.

      So there is fab technology which is already heading in this direction.
    • by Nemyst (1383049)

      There was a time where saying your computer chip was to contain a few billion transistors would get you laughed out the door, since making even a few hundreds of thousands per machine wasn't trivial, never mind the space needed to manufacture and use them.

      That was 30 years ago.

      • *sigh* Couldn't you have done me the courtesy of reading my replies to similar comments before posting this?
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      this is scientifically interesting, but useless for the bulk manufacture the poster hints at.

      This is the first step towards the universal assembler. How can you be glass-half-empty about that?

      • Because it IS a first step and shows (to me) a distressing overfocus on (purely) goal-orientated research in the reporter. I'd estimate that over 90-95% of research never provides the benefits people initially predict, while providing TONS of unexpected benefits instead. My argument is not over the value of the research, but rather the assumption that we can predict it's true value (or most useful direction) on the first step.

        I can think of a dozen more interesting things we can do with this technology TH

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:27PM (#39392511) Homepage

    What the hell does this guy think he's talking about? The article is interesting but "designer babies"? "The fabric of reality"? Where do you people get this stuff?

    • by Shavano (2541114)

      What the hell does this guy think he's talking about? The article is interesting but "designer babies"? "The fabric of reality"? Where do you people get this stuff?

      Apparently, from the scientists he interviewed. One of them is quoted as saying that he had the electrons moving around in a massless state at the speed of light. That qualifies as changing the fabric of reality.

      Or maybe just the fabric of fantasy. It's easy to see how somebody with no science education could see it that way if he's being fed such inaccurate statements by a reputable scientist.

    • by tomhath (637240)

      A more appropriate summary would be something like:

      Using a computer that's little more powerful than an iPad, scientists have created a new substance that has the potential to create super-efficient solar panels which will end global warming and eliminate the need for Earth destroying fracking. All of this at such a low cost there will be no need to involve money grubbing 1% bankers to manufacture.

  • by FridayBob (619244) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:41PM (#39392575) Homepage

    ... The bulk of the universe is made up from just a few dozen elements, and each of these elements is made up of just a few subatomic particles: electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, and so on. ...

    Wrong! The bulk of the universe -- about 70% -- is made of dark energy and we have no idea what that's made of. Then there's dark matter -- about 25% (no idea what that's made of either) -- while less than 5% is made of normal, barionic matter (electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, and so on).

    • by Tablizer (95088)

      If it's dark matter, it's anti-made-up-of. Or, "unmade of".

    • by Jeremi (14640)

      Wrong! The bulk of the universe -- about 70% -- is made of dark energy and we have no idea what that's made of. Then there's dark matter -- about 25% (no idea what that's made of either)

      I think you'll find that Sturgeon's Law gives us a pretty good indication of what this 'mysterious 90% of the universe' is made of.

  • FRIB (Score:5, Interesting)

    by quetwo (1203948) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:50PM (#39392615) Homepage

    Too bad the government is canceling most of the funding that is going towards moving this type of research forward. The FRIB (Federal Rare Isotopes Beam) project, currently under construction in Michigan had most of its funding cut for the budget this coming year. Congress is claiming that the research is better done in France with the current accelerator (which will be half-way through its useful life when the FRIB is expected to go online).

    But hey, why spend money on furthering science and building your ability to be a "thinking" country (we've already given up the ability to be a "making" country), when you can give it to people who just gamble it on the markets and push money around?

    • I'm sure that money all had to be funneled to defense projects.
    • by Nemyst (1383049)

      That's all symptomatic of a larger, even more pressing issue: the West, particularly North America, is being taught that thinking is hard and should be left to their betters. That science, maths, even grammar and languages are complex and that it's alright if you don't want to put the effort to learn them.

      Thinking is rapidly being replaced with following. Sheep are just so much easier to govern, aren't they?

    • by roman_mir (125474)

      You can't be a thinking country without being a making country.

      Once you don't make anything, why would anybody waste time thinking?

  • is looking forward to seeing how our masters will maintain scarcity.
  • To replicators, of course. Star Trek-style replicators, not Stargate-style replicators, for those of you inclined to think every new technology is going to destroy humanity.

    Granted, assembling a few atoms in a lab is a far cry from replicating food, parts, and so forth, but the principle is the same. Fabrication at the sub-atomic level gives us the ability to replicate damned near anything. Once can only imagine how disruptive such a technology will be when things like gold, diamonds, and currency can be p

  • Yeah, they thought they were getting the fancy "designer electrons". But what they actually got was regular electrons with a fancy label. Because electrons are totally fungible; they're all the same and one's just as good as another.

    • by rrohbeck (944847)

      How would an electron with a fancy label be fungible? It would be special!
      Imagine the possibilities. Gucci batteries that deliver special brand juice!

  • So, now we can assemble the molecules, just add in disassembling (or at least being able to read/scan what molecules are present etc.) and we've got beaming technology. Sorry that we'll have to kill you after we copy you (once we've got confirmation that your copy has been assembled at the destination), but the copy probably won't mind.
  • that or replicators.
  • What is going on (Score:5, Informative)

    by mattr (78516) <> on Sunday March 18, 2012 @12:59AM (#39393529) Homepage Journal

    The journalist is making it harder to understand what is going on.

    IANAP but here's how I understand it thanks to google.

    First, 85 tesla have been generated for very short instants in the lab so the article is wrong in saying 60 tesla is higher than ever achieved.

    Graphene forms a two-dimensional lattice surface like a chicken wire fence.
    For each molecule of graphene a single electron sticks out from the surface.
    These electrons are free to hop around to other atoms.
    In fact they act just like particles that have no mass and can travel at 1% of the speed of light. These quasiparticles are called massless dirac fermions. A fermion is a particle with certain properties, the nucles of a helium atom being one kind of fermion.
    Electrons travelling at relativistic speeds is not earth shattering since that is what happens in gold atoms too. But the point is the electrons are free to sweep through the lattice without hindrance, and that if you can control the way the electrons move, you can control the apparent properties of the quasiparticles.

    In 2010 Francisco Guinea in Madrid predicted that stretching graphene along all the axes of it crystal structure will make the electrons act as if subjected to a magnetic field. [] []

    In July 2010 Michael Crommie proved the prediction, by growing bubbles of stretched graphene that stick up like pyramids from the platinum surface they were grown on. The electrons acted as if they were subjected to 300 tesla fields.
    This technique works at room temperature.

    The paper mentioned by the OP talks about designer Dirac fermions which means that you can create quasiparticles possessing the characteristics you desire by simply moving atoms around so they make electrons move in the way necessary to make the quasiparticles appear to exist. You can thereby freely mess with simulated mass, electrical and magnetic fields, etc. which might be very useful. []

    The technique used in the OP experiment is low temperature and nanoscale. But based on Crommie's work it should not be hard to imagine processes in the future that could allow similar structures to be built quickly on a larger scale.

    This is an exciting a relatively new field of research apparently but breathless reports using terms like designer babies or designer electrons when it is really designer quasiparticles, and saying that the fabric of reality is being messed with, is just distracting and does not help people who are not prepared to dive into the actual research paper to find out what is going on.

    • by stevelinton (4044)

      Thanks for some light.

      My understanding is what these guys have is a way to control the electromagnetic environment of the electrons in the surface layer of the copper which is
      far more flexible than anything that was around before. They can, at least to some extent say "we're interested in the environment of graphene" put the CO molecules on the surface in the right pattern and "bingo" the electrons from the copper act like they were in graphene. Then they can say "we're interested in this environment, which

  • I'm pretty sure this is going to lead us to more advanced pRon. Among other things.
  • by gweihir (88907) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @04:31AM (#39394043)

    This has nothing to do with "designer babies" or "the fabric of reality". Why do people that have noting relevant to say feel the need to blow their claims up all out of proportion.

    I mod the story "-1, stupid".

  • I think I read about this 20 years ago, during the first graphene boom, back when all it was used for was STM studies of carbon on metallic surfaces.

    Well, we've come full circle on graphene then, what's next?

Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft ... and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor. -- Wernher von Braun