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By A.J. Roan
Metal Tech News 

Let it snow zinc-gallium nanostructures!

NZ researchers discover method to create metallic snowflakes Metal Tech News - December 21, 2022


Last updated 12/20/2022 at 8:08am

Zinc-gallium snowflake structures created by University of Auckland scientists.


After heating a gallium-zinc alloy to 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit) and letting it cool for 10 days, a variety of zinc snowflake shapes crystallized in the liquid gallium.

Intricate, unique, and beautiful, snowflakes are a crystalline symbol of the wintery season that inspire wonder in children and inspiration for scientists in New Zealand that have managed to replicate these wonderous constructs of nature with gallium and zinc.

A closer look at snowflakes reveals that each piece of pristine powder is a one-of-a-kind ice crystal that is awe inspiring in its beauty and symmetry.

More scientifically, these natural forming ice crystals are a gossamer lattice with their growth being influenced by ambient conditions like temperature and humidity but that's not nearly as fun to say.

Turns out, this sort of intricate self-assemblage can also occur in metals, of which was penned in the journal "Science."

Starting out with pools of molten gallium, which should not be too difficult considering its already liquid state at just above room temperature (85.6 degrees Fahreneit), physicist Nicola Gaston of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and colleagues grew zinc nanostructures with symmetrical, hexagonal crystal frameworks.

Beyond the novelty of creating metallic snowflakes, Gaston said the process of creating these intricate structures could have practical applications.

"Such metal snowflakes could be useful for catalyzing chemical reactions and constructing electronics," said Gaston. "Self-assembly is the way nature makes nanostructures. We're trying to learn to do the same things."

Figuring out how to craft tiny, complex shapes, especially in metal, with fewer steps and less energy could undoubtedly benefit research, especially if the shapes can build themselves into the desired structures.

After mixing the zinc in the gallium, the team subjected the alloy to elevated temperatures and different pressures, and then let the mixture cool to room temperature.

The loose ordering of gallium atoms appeared to coax the crystallizing zinc to bloom into symmetrical, hexagonal structures resembling natural snowflakes.

As the journey continues into exploring materials science, the future is certainly bright for research into applications of gallium and other low-temperature liquid metals.

"Not to take that snowflake metaphor too far, but [this work] really hints at new branches for scientific discovery," finished Gaston.


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