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Fossilized liquid assembly: Nanomaterials research tool

From a butterfly's iridescent wing to a gecko's sticky foot, nature derives extraordinary properties from ordinary materials like wax and keratin. Its secret is hierarchical topology: macroscale structures assembled from microscale components of varying sizes. Borrowing a page from nature's playbook, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a novel platform for the self-assembly of experimental hierarchical surfaces in a fluid. Their work offers diverse industries a new way to generate and measure self-assembly at the nano-scale.

A butterfly's wings shimmer because light plays upon tiny rows of scales, like tiles on a Spanish roof. The gecko sticks to surfaces because its feet are patterned with microscopic hairs, each hair tipped with hundreds of even tinier projections. Beads of water roll off the lotus's leaf because its surface is streaked with microscopic peaks, each with a finer structure, that makes the surface "super hydrophobic." These enhanced properties--other possibilities include super adhesion and low friction--have attracted the attention of design engineers for applications from bioengineered tissues to photonic crystals to submarines that slice through water with minimal drag.

Creating these topologically complex, self-assembled surfaces for study has been a challenge. If the components are mixed on a surface, that substrate affects how they assemble; if mixed in a solvent and dried, the drying process similarly distorts the results. In a recent paper*, the NIST team detailed a much simpler and faster system they dubbed "fossilized liquid assembly" to create experimental models of hierarchical topologies in which the components are allowed to mix and assemble freely in a fluid, and then quickly "frozen" in place for study. The key is the use of solutions of water and a special monomer that polymerizes--links together--when exposed to ultraviolet light. Like an oil-water mixture, the
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Contact: Mark Bello
mark.bello@nist.gov
301-975-3776
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
12-Oct-2006


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