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Salt Block Unexpectedly Stretches In Nanoworld

Date:
June 24, 2009
Source:
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories
Summary:
To stretch a supply of salt generally means using it sparingly. But researchers were startled when they found they had made the solid actually physically stretch. Common table salt — so brittle that it crushes easily between a thumb and forefinger — becomes a super plastic in the weird environs of the nanoworld. The super-elastic salt can stretch like taffy to twice its original length without breaking.

Sandia researchers Jack Houston and Nathan Moore examine a tiny salt block while the screen behinds them shows the magnified tip of the Sandia-developed interfacial force microscope (device in the foreground) performing another materials interrogation.
Credit: Image courtesy of DOE/Sandia National Laboratories

To stretch a supply of salt generally means using it sparingly.

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But researchers from Sandia National Laboratories and the University of Pittsburgh were startled when they found they had made the solid actually physically stretch. Common table salt — so brittle that it crushes easily between a thumb and forefinger — becomes a super plastic in the weird environs of the nanoworld. The super-elastic salt can stretch like taffy to twice its original length without breaking.

"It's not supposed to do that," said Sandia principal investigator Jack Houston. "Unlike, say, gold, which is ductile and deforms under pressure, salt is brittle. Hit it with a hammer, it shatters like glass."

That a block of salt can stretch rather than remain inert might affect world desalination efforts, which involve choosing particular sizes of nanometer-diameter pores to strain salts from brackish water. Understanding unexpected salt deformations also may lead to better understanding of sea salt aerosols, implicated in problems as broad as cloud nucleation, smog formation, ozone destruction and asthma triggers, the researchers write in their paper published in the May Nanoletters.

The serendipitous discovery came about as researchers were examining the mechanical properties of salt in the absence of water. They found unexpectedly that the brittle substance appeared malleable enough to distort over surprisingly long distances by clinging to a special microscope’s nanometer-sized tip as it left the surface of the salt.

More intense examination showed that surface salt molecules formed a kind of bubble — a ductile meniscus — with the exploratory tip as it withdrew from penetrating the cube. In this, it resembled the behavior of the surface of water when an object is withdrawn from it. But unlike water, the salt meniscus didn't break from its own weight as the tip was withdrawn. Instead it followed the tip along, slip-sliding away (so to speak) as it thinned and elongated from 580 nanometers (nm) to 2,191 nm in shapes that resembled nanowires.

A possible explanation for salt molecules peeling off the salt block, said Houston, is that "surface molecules don't have buddies." That is, because there's no atomic lattice above them, they're more mobile than the internal body of salt molecules forming the salt block.

Salt showing signs of surface mobility at room temperatures was "totally surprising," said Houston, who had initially intended to study more conventionally interesting characteristics of the one-fourth-inch square, one-eighth-inch-long salt block.

Other researchers on this work include Sandia's Nathan Moore, with Hunhang Luo and Scott Mao from the University of Pittsburgh.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by DOE/Sandia National Laboratories. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Moore et al. Superplastic Nanowires Pulled from the Surface of Common Salt. Nano Letters, 2009; 9 (6): 2295 DOI: 10.1021/nl9004805

Cite This Page:

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories. "Salt Block Unexpectedly Stretches In Nanoworld." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 June 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090624093317.htm>.
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories. (2009, June 24). Salt Block Unexpectedly Stretches In Nanoworld. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 22, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090624093317.htm
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories. "Salt Block Unexpectedly Stretches In Nanoworld." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090624093317.htm (accessed November 22, 2014).

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