TCD researcher not splitting hairs with new discovery


A RESEARCHER at Trinity College Dublin has taken the notion of splitting hairs to a new level. He and a colleague in Oxford have discovered how to produce flat sheets of different materials that are just one molecule thick.

That thickness is equivalent to about one hundred-thousandth the thickness of the newspaper page on which these words are printed. It doesn’t get much thinner.

The really nice thing is the technology can be used across a range of applications from super small electronics to highly efficient storage batteries, explained Trinity’s Prof Jonathan Coleman.

Prof Coleman is a principal investigator at the Crann (centre for research on adaptive nanostructures and nanodevices) nanotechnology research centre at Trinity, where he is also a professor in the school of physics.

There are lots of layered compounds that form sheets just one or two atoms thick, Prof Coleman explained.

“These layers tend to stick together, but if you could separate these into nanosheets they have properties that are extremely useful. People have known this for a long time but what they have not been able to do is separate them.”

He writes in the journal Sciencethis morning about a way to produce ultra-thin nanosheets using a method he developed with Dr Valeria Nicolosi in the department of materials at Oxford University.They had already produced one type of nanosheet while Dr Nicolosi was a graduate student working at Trinity. They continued to collaborate when she moved to Oxford, and now the two have found a way to produce nanosheets from lots of materials.

“It is easy to make when you know how,” Prof Coleman said.

This was not just about producing unimaginably small nanosheets; they could be used in lots of ways and can be produced on an industrial scale, he said.

One of the most important uses is in “thermoelectric” devices. These are able to take waste heat from any source and convert it into useable electricity.

Prof Coleman said cars lose 70 per cent of the energy they burn as heat and even gas-fired power plants lose half. “However, development of efficient thermoelectric devices would allow this waste heat to be recycled cheaply and easily, something that has been beyond us up to now.”