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International Team Gains New Insights into Molecular Interfaces

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Three men in suits standing outside on a lawn in front of the colourful sculpture of the spectral rings (six giant rings in the colours of the rainbow). © Felix Schmale​/​TU Dort­mund
Dr. Giovanni Zamborlini, Henning Sturmeit, and Prof. Mirko Cinchetti conduct re­search in the Department of Physics at TU Dort­mund Uni­ver­sity.

Molecular interfaces formed between metals and molecular compounds offer great potential as components for fu­ture optoelectronic and spintronic devices. Porphyrin mol­ecules are a promising building block for such interfaces. In an in­ter­na­tio­nal re­search collaboration, Prof. Mirko Cinchetti, Dr. Giovanni Zamborlini, and Henning Sturmeit from the Department of Physics at TU Dort­mund Uni­ver­sity have now investigated im­por­tant properties of this molecule and thus brought it closer to practical applications. They re­cent­ly presented their results in the re­nowned nanotechnology journal Small.

The amount of data grows and grows – and with it, the demand for new options for data storage. One possibility is to store in­for­mation in mol­ecules. They have the advantage of constantly maintaining the same structure and are, as a consequence, very reliable – assuming the lasting transfer of in­for­mation into the mol­ecules can be managed. Re­searchers in the area of spintronics, a specialized field in nanoelectronics, are working to make this possible.

An in­ter­na­tio­nal re­search group led by Prof. Mirko Cinchetti and Dr. Giovanni Zamborlini from TU Dort­mund Uni­ver­sity has now been able to gain im­por­tant insights into an interesting porphyrin-metal interface. Porphyrins contribute to im­por­tant functions in living systems: They occur in the chlorophyl that enables photosynthesis in plants, for example, as well as in the hemoglobin in human blood. In this re­search proj­ect, the sci­en­tists used vapor deposition to coat a copper surface with nickel-containing porphyrin mol­ecules – that is, each molecule carried one nickel atom in the center. They then exposed the porphyrin-copper interface to the gas nitrogen dioxide. They found that the nickel atom in the porphyrin can be reversibly switched to a higher spin state, which no one had previously been able to observe at room temperature. This mechanism could be used in the fu­ture to store in­for­mation in porphyrines, or to develop extremely sensitive sensors to detect the poisonous gas nitrogen dioxide.

Porphyrin-copper interface is extremely interesting for fu­ture applications

The researchers have, in addition, discovered another useful effect: In potential fu­ture applications in electrical components, current would flow through the porphyrin-copper interface. In the experimental study it became clear that the states responsible for current flow will not be influenced by the spin-switching process – an im­por­tant precondition to enable the production of multifunctional components that can selectively change numerous physical properties when external stimuli are applied. "All this makes the porphyrin-copper interface extremely interesting for fu­ture technical applications," says Prof. Mirko Cinchetti.

This work is the result of an in­ter­na­tio­nal cooperation involving TU Dort­mund Uni­ver­sity, For­schungs­zen­trum Jülich, the Uni­ver­sity of Trieste, the Italian National Research Council, the Uni­ver­sity of Erlangen, and the Uni­ver­sity of Graz. The experiments were conducted primarily at the synchrotron facilities ELETTRA in Trieste (Italy) and Swiss Light Source SLS in Villigen (Switzerland). The teams led by Prof. Mirko Cinchetti and Dr. Giovanni Zamborlini (TU Dort­mund Uni­ver­sity) as well as Dr. Vitaly Feyer and Prof. Claus M. Schneider (For­schungs­zen­trum Jülich) were responsible for carrying out and analyzing the measurements, while Prof. Peter Puschnig (Uni­ver­sity of Graz) provided theoretical work. Prof. Cinchetti carries out re­search on the proj­ect within the frame­work of his ERC Consolidator Grant. He was awarded this EU funding, worth two million euros, in 2016.

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