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What Are Super-Atoms?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

Superatomic crystals

Superatomic crystals

When we talk about different atoms, we are making distinctions between three different quantities: the number of protons (positively charged particles), neutrons (neutrally charged particles), and electrons (negatively charged particles) contained within. The nucleus is the central body of an atom and is where neutrons and protons are located. Electrons "orbit" the nucleus like a planet around a sun but in a cloud full of probability as to their exact "orbit." It is how much of each particle that we have that will determine the status of the atom. For example, with a nitrogen atom versus an oxygen atom, we take note of how many of each particle is in each atom (for nitrogen, it is 7 of each and for oxygen, it is 8 of each). Isotopes, or versions of an atom where it has different amounts of the particles from the main atom, also exist. But recently, it was discovered that under certain conditions, you can get a group of atoms to act collectively like a “super atom.”

This super atom has a nucleus made up of a collection of the same type of atom, with all the groupings of protons and neutrons congregating at the center. The electrons, however, migrate and form a “closed shell” around the nucleus. This is when the orbital level that the outer-most electrons exist in is stable and is around the nucleus of the atoms. Thus, the group of nuclei is surrounded by electrons and is collectively known as a super atom.

But do they exist outside of theory? A. Welford Castlenar at Penn State and Shiv N. Khama at Virginia Commonwealth created the technique for generating such particles. Using aluminum atoms, they caused them to merge together with a combination of laser polarization (endowing them with a certain amount of energy as well as position and phase change) and a pressurized stream of helium gas. Combined, it traps the nuclei and conditions it to be in a stable configuration of a superatom (16).

Using this technique, special compounds can be created. For example, aluminum is used in rocket fuel as an additive. It increases the amount of thrust that is propelling the rocket, but when it is introduced to oxygen, the aluminum bonds with the fuel break down, reducing the ability to synthesize in ample amounts (aka maximization of conditions). However, a super atom with 13 aluminum atoms and an extra electron does not have this reaction to oxygen, so it could be a perfect solution (16). Who knows what else could be around the corner in this exciting new field of study. Unfortunately, a barrier to this new field is the ability to synthesize the superatoms. It is not a simple process and therefore is cost-prohibitive, but one day it may be and who knows what applications will be presented to us.

A picture of a cluster of 13 aluminum atoms as a superatom.

A picture of a cluster of 13 aluminum atoms as a superatom.

And can superatoms form molecules? For sure, as demonstrated by Xavier Roy from Columbia University. Using superatoms made of 6 cobalt atoms and 8 selenium atoms, he and his team were able to form simple molecules - two to three superatoms per molecule. And to bond the superatoms, other atoms were brought in that helped satisfy the electron requirements needed. No one knows yet what uses they could be used for but the potential for new science here is staggering (Aron).

Take for example Ni2(acac)3+, formed when Nickel(II) Acetylacetonate, a type of salt, was placed in a mass spectrometer and put under electrospray ionization. This coerced the salt to form into superatoms as voltages ramp up, and these were sent to nitrogen molecules to examine their features. Those ions formed with Ni2O2 remaining as the central core superatomic feature of it. Interestingly, the features of the ion make it s great candidate as a catalyst, giving it an edge in exploiting C-C, C-H, and C-O bonds ("Superatomic").

And then there are superatomic crystals made up of C60 clusters. Together, the clusters have hexagonal and pentagonal patterns within the shape, causing some rotational properties in some and other times non-rotational properties in others. Not too surprisingly, those rotational clusters do not hold onto heat well but the fixed ones conduct it well. But having a mix of this doesn't make for ideal thermal conditions, but maybe this has a potential use for future scientists...(Kulick)

Works Cited

Aron, Jacob. "First superatom molecules pave way for new breed of electronics." Reed Business Information Ltd., 20 Jul. 2016. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

Kulick, Lisa. "Researchers design solids that control heat with spinning superatoms." innovations-report, 07 Sept. 2019. Web. 01 Mar. 2019.

Stone, Alex. “Super-atoms.” Discover: Feb. 2005. 16. Print.

"Superatomic Nickel core and unusual molecular reactivity." innovations report, 27 Feb. 2015. Web. 01 Mar. 2019.

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© 2013 Leonard Kelley


Leonard Kelley (author) on February 27, 2013:

Thanks, glad you liked it.

VanillaBull on February 27, 2013:

Well done on writing this interesting and informative article.