In 2010, Natelson and postdoctoral research associate Jiang Wei began to systematically study the phase changes in VO2. Wei and graduate student Heng Ji began by using a process called vapor deposition to grow VO2 wires that were about 1,000 times smaller than a human hair. One set of experiments on wires that had been baked in the presence of hydrogen gas returned particularly odd readings. Wei, Ji and Natelson determined that the hydrogen was apparently modifying the VO2 nanowires, but only those in contact with metal electrodes.
"The gold electrodes we were using to supply current to the experiment were acting as a catalyst that split the hydrogen gas molecules into atomic hydrogen, which could then diffuse into channels in the VO2," Natelson said. "It appears that the hydrogen is taken up into the VO2 crystals, and this changes their electronic properties. If a little hydrogen is added, the phase transition happens at a slightly lower temperature, and the insulating phase becomes more conductive. If enough hydrogen is added, the transition to the insulating phase disappears altogether."
To gain insight into just how the hydrogen is able to alter the transition, the experimenters consulted with theoretical physicist Andriy Nevidomskyy, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Rice. Nevidomskyy's calculations showed that the hydrogen changes the amount of charge in the VO2 material and also forces the crystal to expand slightly. Both of these effects favor the metallic state.
This is not the first time physicists have lowered the transition temperature of VO2 by adding other materials -- a technique known as "doping." But Natelson said Rice'
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