Most modern technologies rely on semiconductors, materials in which charges move from one group of atoms to another. This is usually done with electrons, where a single electron is passed between two atoms. Researchers are looking at ways to transfer more than one electron at a time and some believe that the key is superatoms.
Superatoms are definitely a weird chemical beast. They are made up of clusters of atoms but act just like a single one. Sometimes this can mimic the properties of different atoms or elements. What researchers are looking for is stability in moving charges and researchers have now come up with a new theoretical template for constructing superatoms. The strategy is reported in Nature Communications.
"Semiconductors are used in every sphere of life. Superatoms that could substantially enhance electron donation would be a significant societal benefit," senior author Professor Shiv Khanna, from Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a statement. "We have devised a new approach in which one can synthesize such metal-based superatoms."
In the template, the researchers focus on alkali elements, those that belong to the first column of the periodic table. These elements have a single electron on their outer shell which makes them quite reactive. Removing this electron requires very little energy but removing more than one from a single atom is just too energetically expensive. And that’s what makes them good candidates for the superatom treatment. A cluster of alkali atoms can donate and receive several electrons with only a little bit of energy.
"The possibility of having these building blocks that can accept multiple charges or donate multiple charges would eventually have wide-ranging applications in electronics," Khanna said.
These alkali superatoms have already been created. The new template gives researchers a roadmap for creating them efficiently and could even help to construct real-life applications. One analysis that the team performed looked at how to protect and stabilize such superatoms without compromising them.
The team used computer simulation to test a particular class of these molecules called organic ligands. They simulated aluminum clusters mixed with boron, carbon, silicon, and phosphorus paired with the organic ligands and showed that the clusters could release electrons using less energy than any alkali on the periodic table.