The world’s best artists can take handfuls of paints of different colors and create a museum-worthy painting unlike anything else. They do this by drawing on inspiration, knowledge of what has been done in the past, and design rules they learned after years in the studio.
Chemists work in a similar way when inventing new compounds. Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have developed a new method for discovering and making new crystalline materials from two or more elements.
“We anticipate that our work will be of great value to chemistry, materials, and condensed matter communities for the synthesis of new and currently unexpected materials with exotic properties,” said Mercury Kanazidis, Northwestern Professor of Chemistry with a joint appointment at Argonne.
“Our invention method arose from research on unconventional superconductors,” said Xiuquan Zhou, a postdoctoral researcher at Argonne and first author of the paper. “These are solids containing two or more elements, at least one of which is not a metal. And they stop resisting the passage of electricity at different temperatures—from anywhere colder than outer space to the one in my office.”
Over the past five decades, scientists have discovered and made many unconventional superconductors with surprising magnetic and electrical properties. These materials have a wide range of possible applications, such as improved power generation, power transmission, and high-speed transportation. They also have the potential to be incorporated into future particle accelerators, MRI systems, quantum computers and energy-efficient microelectronics.
The team’s invention method starts with a two-component solution. One is a very effective solvent. It dissolves and reacts with any solids added to the solution. The other is a less effective solvent. But in order to adjust the reaction to produce a new solid when different elements are added. This adjustment includes changing the ratio of the two ingredients and the temperature. Here, the temperature is quite high, from 750 to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We are not interested in making known materials better, but in discovering materials that no one knew or that theorists thought existed,” Kanazidis noted. “In this way, we can avoid reaction pathways for known substances and follow new paths into the unknown and unexpected.”
As a test case, the researchers applied their method to crystalline compounds of three to five elements. As reported recently in natureTheir discovery method yielded 30 previously unknown compounds. Ten of them have structures never seen before.
The team prepared single crystals of some of these new compounds and characterized their structures at the ChemMatCARS beamline in UChicago at 15-ID-D and X-ray Science Division 17-BM-B of the Advanced Photon Source, a DOE Office of Science user facility. in Argonne. “Using the 17-BM-B beamline of APS, we were able to track the evolution of structures for the different chemical phases formed during the reaction process,” said 17-BM-B beamline scientist Wenqian Xu.
“Traditionally, chemists invented and synthesized new materials relying solely on knowledge of the starting ingredients and the end product,” Zhou said. “The APS data also allowed us to take into account the intermediate products that form during the reaction.”
The Center for Nanomaterials, another user facility of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science in Argonne, contributed key experimental data and theoretical calculations to the project.
This is only the beginning of what is possible, as the method can be applied to almost any crystalline solid. It can also be applied to produce many different crystal structures. This includes multiple stacked layers, a single atom thick layer and chains of unlinked molecules. These unusual structures have different properties and are key to developing next-generation materials that apply not only to superconductors, but also to microelectronics, batteries, magnets, and more.
Besides Zhou, Kanatzidis, and Xu, study co-authors include CVS Kolluru, L. Wang, T. Chang, and Y.-S. Chen, L. Yu, J. Wen, MKY Chan, D.-Y. Chung.
Xiuquan Zhou et al, Discovering the structures and structures of chalcogenides using mixed flows, nature (2022). doi: 10.1038/s41586-022-05307-7
Provided by Argonne National Laboratory
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