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New NSF-funded center to explore chemistry of 'nanothreads'

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018
A polytwistane nanothread — the focus of the new NSF Center for Nanothread Chemistry — in which each carbon atom (black spheres) is bonded to its four neighbors in a diamond-like configuration. It is surrounded by hydrogen atoms (white spheres).

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $1.8 million to a team of scientists led by John Badding, professor of chemistry, physics, and materials science and engineering at Penn State, to establish the NSF Center for Nanothread Chemistry (CNC). The center will bring together a diverse group of chemists to pioneer research on nanothreads, a new form of carbon molecule. First theoretically predicted at Penn State in 2001 and then synthesized there in 2014, the atoms of nanothreads bond together in a cage-like pattern, akin to the thinnest possible threads of diamond.

“The new Center for Nanothread Chemistry brings together the best researchers from Penn State and around the country to work on science and technology enabled by a new discovery from John Badding’s group in the Department of Chemistry,” said Thomas Mallouk, Evan Pugh University Professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Physics, and Engineering Science and Mechanics, and head of the Department of Chemistry at Penn State. “This is one of only two such centers chosen for support by NSF this year, highlighting the importance of their work. Such centers recognize and support the very high quality of scholarship in the department and in the Eberly College of Science at Penn State.”

The new molecules that are the focus of the new center form when arrays of small molecules — in which each carbon atom has only three neighboring atoms — transform under pressure into parallel arrays of long thread-like molecules in which every carbon atom has four neighbors in a diamond-like geometry. The exterior of the nanothreads are capped by hydrogen atoms.

“Experience shows that the synthesis of a new form of matter such as nanothreads is often foundational,” said Badding, “such that a diverse range of new science and applications is enabled.”

With their truss-like geometry, nanothreads are thicker than conventional polymers such as polyethylene, the pervasive plastic we encounter every day in bottles and bags. From the point of view of traditional polymers, nanothreads are very rigid, but from the point of view of many other solid materials, they are highly flexible. As a result, unique mechanical properties can be anticipated for this “flexible diamond.” For example, they may be as strong or stronger than any material known and yet still remain flexible and resilient. With their exterior hydrogen atoms, they can be considered a “hybrid” of a nanomaterial and a molecule and thus should be much more chemically versatile than other carbon nanomaterials. It also should be possible to attach other molecules to nanothreads that can interact in precisely defined and useful ways because their backbone is so much stiffer than conventional polymers.