In self-assembly large molecular structures are obtained from the organization of a large number of molecules or atoms into a given shape, typically through specific interactions of the molecules among themselves and with a template. The interaction of the different bonding mechanisms is an area of strong fundamental research interest. Only two areas will be highlighted here: zeolites and carbon materials. Both of these materials exhibit characteristics of self-assembly, namely novel and reproducible structures that can be fabricated in industrially significant quantities.


Figure 4.4.
Hydrogen absorption-desorption characteristics for mixture of Mg and Mg2Ni prepared by mechanical alloying.

Zeolitic Materials

Aluminosilicates (e.g., zeolites) are crystalline porous nanostructures with long range crystalline order with pore sizes which can be varied from about 4 Å to 15 Å in conventional zeolites. Figure 4.5 shows a 3-dimensional (e.g., MFI) zeolite cage structure together with a depiction of the straight and ziz-zag channels and a 2-dimensional zeolite with channels only in 2 directions. The vertices in the stick drawing denote position of the O atoms in the crystalline lattice. This particular zeolite has 10 atoms in the zeolite "window." The size of the window is determined by the number of oxygens in the ring. Table 4.1 gives approximate window dimensions for zeolites as a function of the number of oxygens in the ring.


Figure 4.5.
Typical zeolite structures together depicting the positions of the O atoms (vertices in upper figure) and two different zeolitic structures one (lower left) with a three dimensional structure and (lower right) a zeolite with a two dimensional channel structure.


Table 4.1
Zeolite Channel "Window" Dimension for Number of Oxygens in Ring

Number of Oxygens in Ring

Ring Diameter (Å)













As can be seen by examination of Table 4.1, molecules can pass through or be blocked from transport through or into the zeolite depending on the zeolite. For example normal hexane with a kinetic molecular diameter of about 5.1 Å can pass through a 10 ring or larger, whereas cyclohexane with a kinetic molecular diameter of 6.9 Å would be hard pressed to pass through a 10 ring. Thus all other things being equal, a 10-ring zeolite could be used to separate mixtures of normal hexane and cyclohexane. It is this property together with the ability to chemically modify the acidity of zeolitic materials that makes them extremely valuable as selective sorbants, as membranes and for use in selective catalytic reactions.

In 1992, a new family of aluminosilicates (M41S) with pores sizes between 20 and 100 Å in diameter were reported by Mobil researchers (Beck et al. 1992; Kresge et al. 1992). One of particular interest is MCM-41, which consists of hexagonal arrays of uniform 2 to 10 nanometer-sized cylindrical pores. Not only can such materials be synthesized, but novel structures such as "tubules-within-a-tubule" have been fabricated as mesoporous molecular sieves in MCM-41 (Lin and Mou 1996). Of particular interest is the possibility of expanding the so-called "liquid crystal templating" mechanism (Chen et al. 1993) to non-aluminum dopants within the silicate MCM-41 framework (Tanev et al. 1994) and to derive non-siliceous MCM-41 type of materials (Braun et al. 1996).

Another approach to synthesizing large pore and large single crystals of zeolytic materials is being pioneered by Geoffrey Ozin and his group at the University of Toronto, who have demonstrated that crystals as large as 5 mm can be synthesized (Kupperman et al. 1993). The ability to synthesize such large crystals has important implications for discovery of new sensors (selective chemical adsorbants) and membrane devices (selective transport of molecular species), since large single crystals can now be available to the laboratory researcher to carry out fundamental studies of adsorption and diffusion properties with such materials. These materials are expected to create new opportunities for applications in the fields of separations science, for use directly as molecular sieves or as new molecular sieving sorbant materials; in catalysis, as heterogeneous catalysts; and as supports for other catalytic materials as well as other novel applications (Bowes et al. 1996; Brinker 1996; Sayari 1996). The ability to synthesize zeolitic materials of precise pore size in the range between 4 and 100 Å continues to expand the possibilities for research and technological innovation in the catalytic, separations, and sorption technologies (Ruthven et al. 1994; Karger and Ruthven 1992).

Carbon Materials

The carbon-based materials of interest from a molecular self-assembly point of view include fullerenes and their relatives, including endohedral fullerenes and metal-coated fullerenes, carbon nanotubes, carbon nanoparticles, and porous carbons. Since 1990 with the discovery of techniques to produce soluble carbon in a bottle (for examples, see Krätschmer et al. 1990 and references therein), research on and with carbon materials has skyrocketed (Dresselhaus et al. 1996; Dresselhaus and Dresselhaus 1995). Not only can the molecular forms of carbon (the fullerenes and their derivatives) be synthesized, characterized, and studied for applications, but many other new carbon materials such as multi- and single-walled carbon nanotubes can now be produced in macroscopic quantities. Figure 4.6 illustrates the broad variety of carbon nanotube structures whose properties are now being examined both theoretically and experimentally. A rich literature on these new carbon materials now exists. This report will only attempt to highlight a few important recent examples in the area of high surface area materials.

Of particular interest for future catalytic applications is the recent report that not only can C60 be coated with metal atoms, but that the metal coating can consist of a precise number of metal atoms. For example, C60Li12 and C60Ca32 have been identified mass spectroscopically (Martin, Malinowski, et al. 1993; Martin, Naher, et al. 1993; Zimmerman et al. 1995). C60 has been coated with a variety of different metals, including Li, Ca, Sr, Ba, V, Ta and other transition metals. Interestingly, addition of more than 3 Ta atoms to C60 breaks the C60 cage. Replacement of one carbon atom in C60 by a transition metal atom such as Co or Ir is being studied for possible catalytic applications. The future technological challenge will be to discover techniques to fabricate large quantities of such materials, so that such catalyst materials can be put in a bottle and not just in molecular beams.

Figure 4.6.
Examples of carbon nanotube structures, including multiwalled and metal-atom-filled nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes have the interesting property that they are predicted to be either semiconducting or conducting (metallic), depending on the chirality and diameter of the nanotube. Such materials are being studied as conductive additives to plastics and for use in electrochemical applications where the uniformity of the nanotube diameter and length is not overly critical (Dresselhaus 1998). Another approach is to use the carbon nanotube as a template for a nanotube of an inorganic oxide. Hollow nanotubes of zirconia and yttria-stablilized zirconia have been prepared by coating treated carbon nanotubes with a zirconium compound and then burning out the carbon template (Rao et al. 1997). Finally, large scale production of single-walled nanotubes has recently been demonstrated, so one may anticipate a strong upsurge in the characterization and potential usage of single-walled carbon nanotubes in the future (Jounet et al. 1997).

Porous carbons are of interest as molecular sieve materials, both as sorbants and as membranes, or as nanostraws for filtration. One of the major research objectives is to develop materials or structures with exceedingly high storage capacity per unit volume and weight for gases such as H2 or CH4. H2 or CH4 could become an economic source of combustion fuel or a means to power fuel cells for ultralow-emission vehicles or for electric power generation. Microporous hollow carbon fibers have exhibited high permeance and high selectivity as hydrogen selective membranes, and development is now underway to scale up these membranes to commercial levels (Soffer et al. 1987; Jones and Koros 1994; Rao and Sircar 1993). Carbon fiber materials produced via catalytic decomposition of hydrocarbon vapors have also recently been reported to exhibit exceptionally high hydrogen adsorption capacity (Baker 1998). More mundane uses of nanotubes are as nanometer reinforcing rods in polymers or even in concrete. Incorporation of conducting carbon nanotubes in construction materials such as concrete or structural plastics opens opportunities for real time monitoring of material integrity and quality.

Microporous and Dense Ultrathin Films

Research and development of microporous thin films for use as molecular sieving membranes using inorganic crystalline materials such as zeolites or porous silica is another area of active research around the world. For molecular sieving membranes, one critical challenge rests on discovering ways to create large scale, thin, nearly defect-free membranes. One recent example is the fabrication of mesoporous conducting thin films grown from liquid crystal mixtures (Attard et al. 1997). Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) reveals an ordered array of 2.5 nm diameter cylindrical holes in a 300 nm thick Pt film. The hole diameter can be varied either by changing the chain length of the surfactant molecule or by adding an alkane to the plating solution. It is interesting that this technique produces a continuous thin film with nanoscale porosity in an electrically conducting material.

Dense ultrathin films such as single monolayer films would be of significant importance in the semiconductor industry (see Chapter 3). Thin films of specialized coatings for corrosion, thermal, and/or chemical stability should be valuable for the chemical and aerospace industries. Novel chemical sensors may be anticipated through use of ultrathin films composed of specialized clusters. Typical techniques for production of thin films are physical vapor deposition, chemical vapor deposition, and Langmuir-Blodgett processes.

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian