Measuring the attractive forces between atoms and surfaces with unprecedented precision, University of Arizona physicists have produced data that could refine our understanding of the structure of atoms and improve nanotechnology. The discovery has been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Van der Waals forces are fundamental for chemistry, biology and physics. However, they are among the weakest known chemical interactions, so they are notoriously hard to study. This force is so weak that it is hard to notice in everyday life. But delve into the world of micro-machines and nano-robots, and you will feel the force everywhere.
"If you make your components small enough, eventually this van-der-Waals potential starts to become the dominant interaction," said Vincent Lonij, a graduate student in the UA department of physics who led the research as part of his doctoral thesis.
"If you make tiny, tiny gears for a nano-robot, for example, those gears just stick together and grind to a halt. We want to better understand how this force works."
To study the van-der-Waals force, Lonij and his co-workers Will Holmgren, Cathy Klauss and associate professor of physics Alex Cronin designed a sophisticated experimental setup that can measure the interactions between single atoms and a surface. The physicists take advantage of quantum mechanics, which states that atoms can be studied and described both as particles and as waves.
"We shoot a beam of atoms through a grating, sort of like a micro-scale picket fence," Lonij explained. "As the atoms pass through the grating, they interact with the surface of the grating bars, and we can measure that interaction."
As the atoms pass through the slits in the grating, the van-der-Waals force attracts them to the bars separating the slits. Depending on how strong the interaction, it changes the atom's trajectory, just like a beam of light is bent when it passe
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University of Arizona