Scientists manufacture on demand designer atoms

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5CB Liquid Crystal
Photograph of isotropic phase of liquid crystal 5CB. (Credits - Wikimedia Commons)

In the near future, scientists may be able to create customised atoms as per one’s requirements with only a button’s click. It may sound like science fiction now but a team of researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder reported that they are slowly approaching the possibility of controlling and assembling particles known as “big atoms”.

The research has been published in the Nature journal. It is centred around the colloidal particles which after mixing with liquid crystals behave similar to the elements in the periodic table. These particles give researchers the ability to study the interaction of atoms like hydrogen, helium without having to zoom down to the level of atoms. Scientists demonstrated that for big atoms they could alter their charges with the help of only a switch. It means that particles which were earlier attracted to each other will now repel each other.

Ivan Smalyukh, a physics professor remarked that by having a vast amount of control, scientists can decide on how the particles assemble and which properties they possess. Essentially, it acts like a designer’s toolkit. This toolkit is initiated with a simple material, liquid crystals.

These elements are the ones responsible for brilliant images on our mobile, television screens and are composed of molecules such as rods which all point in one direction. However, in the past decade, researchers observed that if particles like microscopic silica grains are dropped in the liquid crystals, the ordered particles will get altered to make space for the newly added particles.

The remarkable thing is that the bending of the liquid crystals is analogous to the structures possessed by the electron shells in the atoms. The way the liquid crystals bend around the newly added element is very important as when an existent order is disturbed, additional energy is needed to make new arrangements. The problem which scientists faced till now is that they had very less control on the interactions of the big atoms.

Smalyukh’s team used silica in the shape of a hexagon, coated them with a dye which rotates on being exposed to various light types and then added to the liquid crystals. On exposing the mixture to blue light, the molecules would bend in a specific pattern, while it would behave differently on using a different light. The best thing is that no sophisticated laser is needed for these interactions. A normal lamp with a filter is sufficient for it. Which means a bright sunny day is enough for observing the various interactions.

Researchers are quite excited to manipulate these particles by tweaking them in new ways for creating structures not existing in nature and dissolving them similarly.

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