A team of Virginia Commonwealth University scientists has discovered a ‘magnetic superatom’ – a stable cluster of atoms that can mimic different elements of the periodic table – that one day may be used to create molecular electronic devices for the next generation of faster computers with larger memory storage.
The quantum states in metal clusters are grouped into bunches of close-lying eigenvalues, termed electronic shells, similar to those of atoms. Filling of the electronic shells with paired electrons results in local minima in energy to give stable species called magic clusters. This led to the realization that selected clusters mimic chemical properties of elemental atoms on the periodic table and can be classified as superatoms. So far the work on superatoms has focused on non-magnetic species. Here we propose a framework for magnetic superatoms by invoking systems that have both localized and delocalized electronic states, in which localized electrons stabilize magnetic moments and filled nearly-free electron shells lead to stable species. An isolated VCs8 and a ligated MnAu24(SH)18 are shown to be such magnetic superatoms. The magnetic superatoms’ assemblies could be ideal for molecular electronic devices, as the coupling could be altered by charging or weak fields.
Through an elaborate series of theoretical studies, Shiv N. Khanna, Ph.D., professor in the VCU Department of Physics, together with VCU postdoctoral associates J. Ulises Reveles, A.C. Reber, and graduate student P. Clayborne, and collaborators at the Naval Research Laboratory in D.C., and the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad, India, examined the electronic and magnetic properties of clusters having one vanadium atom surrounded by multiple cesium atoms.
They found that when the cluster had eight cesium atoms it acquired extra stability due to a filled electronic state. An atom is in a stable configuration when its outermost shell is full. Consequently, when an atom combines with other atoms, it tends to lose or gain valence electrons to acquire a stable configuration.
According to Khanna, the new cluster had a magnetic moment of five Bohr magnetons, which is more than twice the value for an iron atom in a solid iron magnet. A magnetic moment is a measure of the internal magnetism of the cluster. A manganese atom also has a similar magnetic moment and a closed electronic shell of more tightly bound electrons, and Khanna said that the new cluster could be regarded as a mimic of a manganese atom.
“An important objective of the discovery was to find what combination of atoms will lead to a species that is stable as we put multiple units together. The combination of magnetic and conducting attributes was also desirable. Cesium is a good conductor of electricity and hence the superatom combines the benefit of magnetic character along with ease of conduction through its outer skin,” Khanna said.
“A combination such as the one we have created here can lead to significant developments in the area of “molecular electronics,” a field where researchers study electric currents through small molecules. These molecular devices are expected to help make non-volatile data storage, denser integrated devices, higher data processing and other benefits,” he said.
Khanna and his team are conducting preliminary studies on molecules composed of two such superatoms and have made some promising observations that may have applications in spintronics. Spintronics is a process using electron spin to synthesize new devices for memory and data processing.
The researchers have also proposed that by combining gold and manganese, one can make other superatoms that have magnetic moment, but will not conduct electricity. These superatoms may have potential biomedical applications such as sensing, imaging and drug delivery.