Ludwig De Knoop, a researcher from the Chalmers department of Physics, has successfully melted gold at room temperature by exposing it to a high electric field.
De Knoop was not initially aware how gold would respond to exposure to electricity. His experiment involved placing a small piece of the metal under an electron microscope. He then exposed it to the electrical field, increasing it to a high level step by step while observing the gold at the highest level of magnification possible.
“I was really stunned by the discovery. This is an extraordinary phenomenon, and it gives us new, foundational knowledge of gold,” says de Knoop.
Exposure to the electric field ‘excited’ the gold atoms, making them lose their connections to one another and come out of the ordered structure that holds solids together. Further experimentation also showed that it was possible to make the gold switch between solid and liquid structure.
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Though it is well established that heightened temperatures can induce such a response from atoms in solids, the effect of high electrical fields at ambient temperatures has not been investigated much. As such, De Knoop’s discovery is fairly significant in materials science. It is expected that this discovery could open new avenues in the development of nanodevices and field-effect transistor technology.
Researchers have been able to suggest why the gold was able to change physical states at room temperature through theoretical calculations. It has been hypothesized that the surface melting can be seen as what is known as low-dimensional phase transition. This would connect the discovery to the research field of topology. Scientists David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz are considered pioneers in the field and received the Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 for the theoretical discovery of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter. Researchers are now looking for connections between the work done by the aforementioned Nobel laureates and De Knoop’s discovery.
De Knoop’s findings have been published in material physics journal Physical Review Materials.