In their research, Zeng and Sun have been trying to find a cost-effective approach to hierarchically assemble nanoscale building blocks for functional materials and devices. "In the past, this has been largely done by complicated microfabrication techniques involving multi-step lithography" explains Zeng. "The core of our work is the development of a general route for synthesizing multi-component, hybrid nanostructures where different nanoscale building blocks are directly grown onto one another to realize materials with multifunctionality. We envision that one day scientists will be able to grow completely functional sensors or even computer chips out of the solution phase. Our work is one small step towards realizing this goal."
Using their general synthesis approach, the two groups have produced a rather comprehensive list of hybrid materials that can be grouped into four classes: magnetic-metallic, magnetic-semiconductor, semiconductor-metallic, and magnetic-metallic-semiconductor.
The range of applications for these multicomponent nanoparticles is wide. For instance, they can be used as multi-modal bio-markers combining the functionalities of imaging, guided drug delivery and hyperthermia. Integrating different material properties at the nanoscale may also provide new opportunities for discovering enhanced or entirely novel material properties. Zeng uses the example of a ferroelectric-ferromagnetic multicomponent structure that could be used for electric field control of magnetism. "Such new functionality may one day allow new device concepts in nanoelectronics" he says.
Three sets of challenges before we can see large-scale practical applications:
1) gaining a fundamental understanding of the chemistry and materials science issues involved, so that hybrid structures can be designed with a high degree of control;
2) gaining a fundamental understanding of the interactions at the nanoscale between different components, so that the novel physical properties that may originate from such coupling can be predicted and exploited; and
3) finally, the controlled assembly of such hybrid nanoscale building blocks into bulk materials