A new process that uses vapour – rather than liquid – to grow designer crystals could lead to a new breed of faster, more powerful electronic devices.

The challenge

Growing metal organic framework (MOF) crystals without liquid

On the atomic scale, MOF crystals look like bird cages that can be tailor-made to different shapes and sizes. They have an extremely large surface area, meaning they can be up to 80 per cent empty inside. The result is a structure where almost every atom is exposed to empty space. To put it another way, one gram of MOF crystals has a surface area of over 5000 square metres – that's the size of a football field.

When it comes to electronics, accessing this type of capacity could allow a microchip to fit a lot more transistors, which would increase speed and power. However, up until now MOF crystals could only be grown and applied using a liquid solvent, making them unsuitable for electronics applications. In the same way a smart phone does not like water, electronic devices don't like the liquid solvent that's used to grow MOF crystals because it can corrode and damage the delicate circuitry.

Our response

Using vapour instead of water

For the first time, researchers have shown how the designer crystals can be grown using a vapour method, similar to steam hovering over a pot of hot water.

Scientist in blue shirt, csiro lanyard and safety goggles smiles at camera while working on high tech machine

Dr Mark Styles alongside CSIRO’s specialist X-ray analysis equipment.

The international team, which was led by Ivo Stassen and Professor Rob Ameloot from the University of Leuven in Belgium and includes the National University of Singapore and CSIRO, drew on specialist X-ray analysis techniques from CSIRO and the Australian Synchrotron to understand how the vapour process works, and how it can be used to grow the MOF crystals.

The new vapour method for growing and applying MOF crystals overcomes the 'water' barrier and has the potential to disrupt the microelectronics industry.

The results

Unlimited potential

MOF crystals are the world's most porous materials, and the applications for MOFs can only be limited by one's imagination.

Apart from significantly boosting the processing power of microelectronic devices, another potential use for this technology would be portable chemical sensing devices that could be used in hazardous environments such as chemical processing plants and underground mines.

You can read more about this in the Nature Materials paper, available at Chemical vapour deposition of zeolitic imidazolate framework thin films .

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