Nanometre gaps can crystallise liquids

X-ray examination shows surprising coexistence of liquid and crystalline form.

Very narrow gaps make liquids crystallise partially. X-ray investigations at DESY show that in gaps just a few molecule diameters wide both, liquid and crystal properties of a material can exist at the same time. The observation of this coexistence is important for all liquids in very small cavities and thus also for the study of friction (tribology). The team led by DESY researchers Milena Lippmann and Oliver Seeck presents the research in The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.
It was already known that liquids form atomically thin layers at an interface, such as the bottom or wall of a vessel. At the interface, the liquid is therefore not as disordered as in the volume. A relatively well-ordered layer of molecules of the liquid forms directly on the wall, on top of which a further layer is formed that is somewhat less orderly, on top of which a layer is even less orderly, until after about four to five layers the liquid is disordered.
“Despite this layering, the liquid remains liquid – the chemistry and physics of the layer do not change fundamentally,” explains Seeck. “An interesting situation arises if two smooth interfaces are brought together to a nanometre distance with a liquid between them.” One nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre. This brings the distance into the realm of molecule sizes. Depending on the specific liquid, its molecules can have a diameter of half a nanometre, for example.

>Read more on the PETRA III at DESY website

Image: Experimental set-up: In a diamond anvil cell, liquid is confined to a few nanometres narrow gap (centre). In this environment, layers and crystallisation coexist, as the X-ray investigation has shown.
Credit: DESY, Milena Lippmann