Chemistry professor Þorfinnur Gunnlaugsson and his colleagues at Trinity College have been making headlines of late for discovering a rather remarkable new use for common table salt. While working on a completely different research project, Þorfinnur and his team were surprised to see that when salt crystals are put in supramolecular self-assembly gel, they produce “nanowires.” (Nanowires, for the uninitiated, are incredibly thin structures used in the creation of transistors for microchips. For more information than you probably want on this, see here.)
“One would have thought that NaCl would have been studied to death by now, but we discovered a new morphology for table salt, something nobody had seen before,” Þorfinnur told The Irish Times. “We found the growth of the NaCl wires by chance – researchers were working on the project, and, while analysing the gel material, they noticed and monitored over time the growth of unusual structures and realised that they were observing new and fascinating structures not previously reported. The fact it turned out to be table salt took us by surprise.”
In order to contextualize Þorfinnur’s findings for the layperson, DV consulted with chemistry professor Odd Ingólfsson. “The gel is an accumulation of large molecules whose special properties arrange themselves without external influences,” he said. “Its molecules arrange themselves like pick-up sticks, that is to say, they don’t fall all over the place like molecules should do.”
Þorfinnur himself spoke to DV as well, saying that this discovery could have unbelievably useful applications in the field of nanotechnology. “We can use the gel as the foundation from which to build a new material which has never been seen before. Table salt itself doesn’t have any remarkable utilities but there are various kinds of salts which are conductors. These are possible to use like copper wire. That means that you could manufacture smaller and smaller components.”
“Computer systems, chips and such things are always getting smaller and if it is possible to use salt as a conductor, then it is possible to do everything on a much smaller scale,” Þorfinnur continued. “Everything depends on reducing the size of machinery and equipment. This is the future.”
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