Theses Doctoral

Interplay between Mechanics, Electronics, and Energetics in Atomic-Scale Junctions

Aradhya, Sriharsha Veerabhadraiah

The physical properties of materials at the nanoscale are controlled to a large extent by their interfaces. While much knowledge has been acquired about the properties of material in the bulk, there are many new and interesting phenomena at the interfaces that remain to be better understood. This is especially true at the scale of their constituent building blocks - atoms and molecules. Studying materials at this intricate level is a necessity at this point in time because electronic devices are rapidly approaching the limits of what was once thought possible, both in terms of their miniaturization as well as our ability to design their behavior. In this thesis I present our explorations of the interplay between mechanical properties, electronic transport and binding energetics of single atomic contacts and single-molecule junctions. Experimentally, we use a customized conducting atomic force microscope (AFM) that simultaneously measures the current and force across atomic-scale junctions. We use this instrument to study single atomic contacts of gold and silver and single-molecule junctions formed in the gap between two gold metallic point contacts, with molecules with a variety of backbones and chemical linker groups. Combined with density functional theory based simulations and analytical modeling, these experiments provide insight into the correlations between mechanics and electronic structure at the atomic level.
In carrying out these experimental studies, we repeatedly form and pull apart nanoscale junctions between a metallized AFM cantilever tip and a metal-coated substrate. The force and conductance of the contact are simultaneously measured as each junction evolves through a series of atomic-scale rearrangements and bond rupture events, frequently resulting in single atomic contacts before rupturing completely. The AFM is particularly optimized to achieve high force resolution with stiff probes that are necessary to create and measure forces across atomic-size junctions that are otherwise difficult to fabricate using conventional lithographic techniques. In addition to the instrumentation, we have developed new algorithmic routines to perform statistical analyses of force data, with varying degrees of reliance on the conductance signatures.
The key results presented in this thesis include our measurements with gold metallic contacts, through which we are able to rigorously characterize the stiffness and maximum forces sustained by gold single atomic contacts and many different gold-molecule-gold single-molecule junctions. In our experiments with silver metallic contacts we use statistical correlations in conductance to distinguish between pristine and oxygen-contaminated silver single atomic contacts. This allows us to separately obtain mechanical information for each of these structural motifs. The independently measured force data also provides new insights about atomic-scale junctions that are not possible to obtain through conductance measurements alone. Using a systematically designed set of molecules, we are able to demonstrate that quantum interference is not quenched in single-molecule junctions even at room temperature and ambient conditions. We have also been successful in conducting one of the first quantitative measurements of van der Waals forces at the metal-molecule interface at the single-molecule level. Finally, towards the end of this thesis, we present a general analytical framework to quantitatively reconstruct the binding energy curves of atomic-scale junctions directly from experiments, thereby unifying all of our mechanical measurements. I conclude with a summary of the work presented in this thesis, and an outlook for potential future studies that could be guided by this work.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics
Thesis Advisors
Venkataraman, Latha
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 13, 2013