Researchers from North Carolina State University and Brown University have found that zinc oxide and silicon nanowires have a pronounced anelasticity. This could enable the development of stretchable, flexible wearable devices.
It was found that – when bent – the nanowires would return more than 80% of the way to their original shape instantaneously, but return the rest of the way (up to 20%) slowly.
"All materials have some degree of anelasticity, but it is usually negligible at the macroscopic scale," says Yong Zhu, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State and author of a paper describing the work. "Because nanowires are so small, the anelasticity is significant and easily observed - although it was a total surprise when we first discovered the anelasticity in nanowires."
The anelasticity was discovered when Zhu and his students were studying the buckling behaviour of nanowires.
"Anelasticity is a fundamental mechanical property of nanowires, and we need to understand these sorts of mechanical behaviours if we want to incorporate nanowires into electronics or other devices," says Elizabeth Dickey, a professor of materials science and engineering at NC State and co-author of the paper. Nanowires hold promise for use in a variety of applications, including flexible, stretchable and wearable electronic devices.
When any material is bent, the bonds between atoms are stretched or compressed to accommodate the bending, but in nanoscale materials there is time for the atoms to also move, or diffuse, from the compressed area to the stretched area in the material. If you think of the bent nanowire as an arch, the atoms are moving from the inside of the arch to the outside. When the tension in the bent wire is released, the atoms that simply moved closer or further apart snap back immediately; this describes elasticity. But the atoms that moved out of position altogether take time to return to their original sites. That time lag is a characteristic of anelasticity.
"This phenomenon is pronounced in nanowires. For instance, zinc oxide nanowires exhibited anelastic behaviour that is up to four orders of magnitude larger than the largest anelasticity observed in bulk materials, with a recovery time-scale in the order of minutes," says Huajian Gao, a professor at Brown University and co-corresponding author of the paper.
Detailed modelling by Gao's group indicates that the pronounced anelasticity in nanowires is because it is much easier for atoms to move through nanoscale materials than through bulk materials. And the atoms don't have to travel as far. In addition, nanowires can be bent much further than thicker wires without becoming permanently deformed or breaking.
The team plans to explore whether this pronounced anelasticity is common across nanoscale materials and structures. They also want to evaluate how this characteristic may affect other properties, such as electrical conductivity and thermal transport.
Pic: Time lapse image: Top left, the image shows a nanowire bent almost in half, and then 5 seconds after release (middle left), 10 seconds (bottom left), 60 seconds (top right), 10 minutes (middle right), and 20 minutes (bottom right) after release.