Rice University scientists make breakthrough in single-molecule sensing

February 12, 2008, Houston, TX--In a study that could lay the foundation for mass-produced single-molecule sensors, physicists and engineers at Rice University have demonstrated a means of simultaneously making optical and electronic measurements of the same molecule.

February 12, 2008, Houston, TX--In a study that could lay the foundation for mass-produced single-molecule sensors, physicists and engineers at Rice University have demonstrated a means of simultaneously making optical and electronic measurements of the same molecule.

While scientists have used electronic and optical instruments to measure single molecules before, Rice's system is the first that allows both simultaneously--a process known as "multimodal" sensing--on a single small molecule. "We can mass-produce these in known locations, and they have single-molecule sensitivity at room temperature in open air," said study co-author Douglas Natelson, associate professor of physics and astronomy and co-director of Rice's Quantum Magnetism Laboratory (QML). "In principle, we think the design may allow us to observe chemical reactions at the single-molecule level."

The research, which is available online, is slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Nano Letters. The experiments were performed on a nanoelectronic device consisting of two tiny electrodes separated by a molecule-sized gap. Using electric current, the researchers measured conduction through single molecules in the gap. In addition, light-focusing properties of the electrodes allowed the researchers to identify the molecule by a unique optical fingerprint.

Daniel Ward, a student in Natelson's research group, built the electrodes from tiny gold wires on silicon wafers and performed the critical measurements. "Conduction across our electrodes is known to depend on a quantum effect called 'tunneling'," Natelson said. "The gaps are so small that only one or two molecules contribute to the conduction. So when we get conduction, and we see the optical fingerprint associated with a particular molecule, and they track each other, then we know we're measuring a single molecule and we know what kind of molecule it is. We can even tell when it rotates and changes position."

For more information, visit www.rice.edu.

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