Crafting technology from nature's darkest secrets

A tennis match between the researchers provided the perfect forum to discuss some new ideas about microspheres.

© 2016 KAUST

Most researchers actively try to suppress disordered states such as background static, as they lead to unpredictable experimental results. However, recent findings from researchers at KAUST reveal that the built-up energy inside chaotic systems can be tapped using optical waves and nanofabrication. This approach has led to producing the darkest material ever seen on Earth—a T-shaped nanoparticle with record-setting potential to store and release light energy.

“Sometimes our research is described as complex, but it is actually quite simple,” explained Andrea Fratalocchi, assistant professor of electrical engineering at KAUST. “We just follow the evolution of nature and what we see around us.”  In this manner, white beetles of the genus Cyphochilus and natural thermodynamic phenomena became the inspiration behind the discovery of an advanced light trapping material.

Fratalocchi leads a team that seeks to understand and design three-dimensional systems that automatically optimize their energy trapping. As an example, he discusses the problem of delivering a precise microgram quantity of a drug powder. “Too much and the patient dies, a little less and it has no effect. If there is no scale capable of weighing such a small amount precisely, what would you do?”

The answer, he explains, is to dissolve the powder in water and use the natural tendency of molecules to move via random Brownian motion uniformly throughout the liquid. A volume containing the exact dosage can then be extracted. This diffusion process makes this system’s entropy—a parameter that quantifies thermodynamic disorder—increase irreversibly towards its maximum value.

“This is an extremely powerful effect that works every time regardless of the size and shape of a container,” Fratalocchi noted. “It’s so ubiquitous we think of it as simple, but it is actually based on very complex chaotic dynamics.”

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