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Solitons Could Power Molecular Electronics, Artificial Muscles

Scientists have discovered something new about exotic particles called solitons.Since the 1980s, scientists have known that solitons can carry an electrical charge when traveling through certain //organic polymers. A new study now suggests that solitons have intricate internal structures.

Scientists may one day use this information to put the particles to work in molecular electronics and artificial muscles, said Ju Li, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Ohio State University.

Li explained that each soliton is made up of an electron surrounded by other particles called phonons. Just as a photon is a particle of light energy, a phonon is a particle of vibrational energy.

The new study suggests that the electron inside a soliton can attain different energy states, just like the electron in a hydrogen atom.

"While we know that such internal electronic structures exist in all atoms, this is the first time anyone has shown that such structures exist in a soliton," Li said.

The soliton's quantum mechanical properties -- including these newly discovered energy states -- are important because they affect how the particle carries a charge through organic materials such as conducting polymers at the molecular level.

"These extra electronic states will have an effect -- we just don't know right now if it will be for better or worse," he said.

Li and his longtime collaborators from MIT published their findings in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The name "soliton" is short for "solitary wave." Though scientists often treat particles such as electrons as waves, soliton waves are different. Ordinary electron waves spread out and diminish over time, and soliton waves don't.

"It's like when you make a ripple in water -- it quickly spreads and disappears," Li said. "But a soliton is a strange kind of object.
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