While engineers around the world work on designing the next generation of electronics and energy technology, researchers at Stanford University are laser focused on understanding the fundamental properties of materials. At SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which is operated by Stanford on behalf of the Department of Energy, researchers use different types of laser light to understand the nanomaterials that are used to make batteries, electronics, and solar cells. Aaron Lindenberg, a researcher at SLAC, says:
Even though some of these materials are completely embedded in everyday technologies, not a lot is understood about how they work. Part of the reason some phenomena are not well understood is because they happen so fast – in billionths, trillionths or even quadrillionths of a second. For the first time, we have tools that allow us to see these things.
The researchers zap materials with lasers to observe how the nanoscale materials respond, at ultrafast timescales. They are learning how small tweaks to the material—such as size, shape, or design—can change their basic properties in potentially useful ways. In a recent experiment, the researchers witnessed a three-atom-thick material that wrinkled when it was hit with a laser pulse. Understanding exactly how the material behaves at such a fundamental level will provide a foundation for future innovations. Linenberg explains:
We are trying to understand how electrons or atoms move in materials, which in turn determines, for example, the efficiency of solar cells and other energy-related materials, and how materials switch between different forms. Ultrafast techniques allow you to see these kinds of things in a completely new way.