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Super-thin membrane, 50 atoms thick, sorts individual molecules

A newly designed porous membrane, so thin it's invisible edge-on, may revolutionize the way doctors and scientists manipulate objects as small as a molecule.

The 50-atom thick filter can withstand surprisingly high pressures and may be a key to better separation of blood proteins for dialysis patients, speeding ion exchange in fuel cells, creating a new environment for growing neurological stem cells, and purifying air and water in hospitals and clean-rooms at the nanoscopic level.

At more than 4,000 times thinner than a human hair, the new barely-there membrane is thousands of times thinner than similar filters in use today.

Details on the membrane, developed at the University of Rochester, appear in today's issue of the journal Nature. "It's amazing, we have a material as thin as some of the molecules it's sorting, and even riddled with holes, but can withstand enough pressure to make real-world nano-filtering a practical reality," says research associate Christopher Striemer, co-creator of the membrane. "That ultra-thinness means much higher efficiency and lower sample loss, so we can do things that can't normally be done with current materials."

The membrane is a 15-nanometer-thick slice of the same silicon that's used every day in computer-chip manufacturing. In the lab of Philippe Fauchet, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University, Striemer discovered the membrane as he was looking for a way to better understand how silicon crystallizes when heated.

He used such a thin piece of silicononly about 50 atoms thickbecause it would allow him to use an electron microscope to see the crystal structure in his samples, formed with different heat treatments.

Striemer found that as parts of the silicon contracted into crystals, holes opened up in their wakes. Imagine a party of people spread out evenly throughout a room, but as the evening progresses and people huddle into cliques, s
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Contact: Jonathan Sherwood
jonathan.sherwood@rochester.edu
585-273-4726
University of Rochester
14-Feb-2007


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