Scientific breakthrough could lead to stronger materials made from tiny glass particles

DELFT, Netherlands — Scientists may be on the verge of creating stronger smartphone and computer screens thanks to a breakthrough involving tiny glass particles. An international team developed a better way to build tiny particles called colloids that form the backbone of a vast range of products.

They showed they can simply use the shape to make interesting designs regardless of other properties.

“This is striking, because it opens up a completely new way to think about materials design,” says lead author Dr. Laura Rossi from the Delft University of Technology in a media release.

Colloids – tiny particles suspended in a liquid – are already an ingredient in items like paints, cosmetics, sun blocks, pharmaceuticals, and even foods. They are a few nanometers to a few microns in size with a variety of molecules that have different properties depending on what they are made from.

“Under certain circumstances colloids can behave like atoms and molecules, but their interactions are less strong,” Rossi explains. “That makes them promising building blocks for new materials, for example for interactive materials that can adapt their properties to their environment.”

How can scientists use these ‘interesting building blocks’?

While left alone, the team’s cube-shaped colloids made from glass assembled themselves into simple structures like distorted cubic and hexagonal lattices. However, instead of going immediately to the final structure, Dr. Rossi and colleagues took small groups and combined them into bigger pieces. They ended up with a different final form and properties than the self-assembled counterpart.

“From a chemistry point of view, we always focus on how we can produce a certain type of colloid,” Rossi says. “In this study, we’ve shifted our focus to: how can we use the colloids that are already available to make interesting building blocks?”

colloids
Four cubic colloids made from glass (Credit: Delft University of Technology)

Almost every manufacturing process uses colloids in some form, ranging from making mayonnaise to latex, ceramics, paper coatings, and all sorts of lotions. Until now, however, companies have had to rely heavily on experience to judge the critical properties of a suspension – the size of the suspended particles and their electrical charge.

Getting it wrong can mean overusing ingredients, ruining an entire batch, or producing an inferior product. The ultimate goal is to design complex colloidal structures on demand.

“What we found here is very important, because for possible applications, we need to have procedures that can be scaled up, which is something that will be hard to achieve with most currently available approaches,” Rossi says.

“The basic ability to pre-assemble identical pieces from different building blocks, and have them make the same structure, or to take the same building block and pre-assemble different pieces that make different structures, are really the basic ‘chess moves’ for engineering complex structures,” adds co-author Dr. Greg van Anders of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

The future of handheld devices?

The findings, published in the journal Science Advances, have a host of potential applications.

“We found that the density of the structure that we prepared was much lower than the density of the structure you would obtain by using the starting building blocks. So you can think about strong but lightweight materials for transportation,” Rossi continues.

Rossi’s group built clusters of colloids in the lab. Then they relied on Dr. van Anders’ team to build the final structure out of pre-assembled clusters with a computer simulation.

“With these kinds of projects, it’s great to be able to team up with others who can run simulations, not only to understand what’s happening in depth, but also to test how big the chance of a successful lab experiment will be,” Rossi explains. “And in this case, we got very convincing results that we were understanding the design process well and that the resulting material can be useful.”

The next step will be to actually build the final structure made from the groups of colloids in the lab.

“After seeing these results, I’m confident that it can be done,” Rossi concludes. “It would be great to have a physical version of this material and hold it in my hand.”

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.