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Oct 19th, 2012
 
Researchers at University of Pensylvania find new way to prevent cracking in nanoparticle films
 
The new approach is based on a repetitive ultra-thin film deposition until the desired film thickness is obtained
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Making uniform coatings is a common engineering challenge, and, when working at the nanoscale, even the tiniest cracks or defects can be a big problem. New research from University of Pennsylvania engineers has shown a new way of avoiding such cracks when depositing thin films of nanoparticles. 

 
Nanoparticle films crack at certain thicknesses (left). 
By adding layers of thinner films, cracking can be avoided (right).

The research was led by graduate student Jacob Prosser and assistant professor Daeyeon Lee, both of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. Graduate student Teresa Brugarolas and undergraduate student Steven Lee, also of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and professor Adam Nolte of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology participated in the research.

Their work was published in the journal Nano Letters.

To generate a nanoparticle film, the desired particles are suspended in a suitable liquid, which is then thinly and evenly spread over the surface through a variety of physical methods. The liquid is then allowed to evaporate, but, as it dries, the film can crack like mud in the sun. 

This dilemma is highlighted in the case of electrodes, the contact points in many electrical devices that transfer electricity. High-end devices, like certain types of solar cells, have electrodes composed of nanoparticle films that conduct electrons, but cracks in the films act as insulators. Adding a binder to the films would only compound the problem.
Engineers can prevent cracks with alternative drying methods, but these involve ultra-high temperatures or pressures and thus expensive and complicated equipment. A cheap and efficient method for preventing cracks would be a boon for any number of industrial processes. 

The ubiquity of cracking in this context, however, means that researchers know the “critical cracking thickness” for many materials. The breakthrough came when Prosser tried making a film thinner than this threshold, then stacking them together to make a composite of the desired thickness.

One reason this approach may have remained untried is that it is counterintuitive that it should work at all.

The method the researchers used to make the films is known as “spin-coating.” A precise amount of the nanoparticle suspension — in this case, silica spheres in water — is spread over the target surface. The surface is then rapidly spun, causing centrifugal acceleration to thin the suspension over the surface in a uniform layer. The suspension then dries with continued rotation, causing the water to evaporate and leaving the silica spheres behind in a compacted arrangement.

But to make a second layer over this first, another drop of liquid suspension would need to be placed on the dried nanoparticles, something that would normally wash them away. However, the researchers were surprised when the dried layers remained intact after the process was repeated 13 times; the exact mechanism by which they remained stable is something of a mystery.
Future research will be necessary to pin down this mechanism and apply it to new types of nanoparticles.

 

 
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