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CU scientists create world's thinnest balloon -- just one atom thick
Date:9/22/2008

With a tapping atomic force microscope, which measures the amount of deflecting force a tiny cantilever experiences as it scans nanometers over the membrane's surface, the researchers watched the graphene as it bulged in or out in response to pressure changes up to several atmospheres without breaking.

They also turned the membrane into a tiny drum, measuring its oscillation frequency at different pressures. They found that helium, the second-smallest element (and the smallest testable gas, since hydrogen atoms pair up as a gas), stays trapped behind a wall of graphene -- again, even under several atmospheres of pressure.

"When you work the numbers, you would expect that nothing would go through, so it's not a scientific surprise," said McEuen. "But it does tell you that the membrane is perfect" -- since even an atom-sized hole would allow the helium to escape easily.

Such a membrane could have all kinds of uses, he added. It could form a barrier in an aquarium-like setup, for example, allowing scientists to image biological materials in solution through a nearly invisible wall without subjecting the microscope to the wet environment. Or, researchers could poke atomic-sized holes in the membrane and use the system to study how single atoms or ions pass through the opening.

"This could serve as sort of an artificial analog of an ion channel in biology," McEuen said -- or as a way to measure the properties of an atom by observing its effect on the membrane.

"You're tying a macroscopic system to the properties of a single atom," he said, "and that gives opportunities for all kinds of single atom sensors."


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Contact: Blaine Friedlander
bpf2@cornell.edu
607-254-8093
Cornell University Communications
Source:Eurekalert

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