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Scientists managed to stabilize extremely reactive silicon-oxide molecules

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Posted April 24, 2015

Researchers at University of Georgia have succeeded in isolating silicon oxide fragments for the first time, at room temperature, by trapping them between stabilizing organic bases. This establishes new research possibilities for silicon chemistry and the semiconductor industry. It is said that efforts to make this achievement date back to laboratories of Europe in 19th century. However, explaining, why this success is important and what exactly scientists achieved, is a rather difficult task.

Sand is naturally abundant silicon oxide - a network solid wherein each silicon atom bonds to four oxygen atoms in a process that repeats infinitely. New discoveries are said to open ‘new world in a grain of sand’. Image credit: Simisa via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sand is naturally abundant silicon oxide – a network solid wherein each silicon atom bonds to four oxygen atoms in a process that repeats infinitely. New discoveries are said to open ‘new world in a grain of sand’. Image credit: Simisa via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

In short, chemists have been able to trap molecular species of silicon oxides. At room temperature it has been done for the first time. Even though technique was developed back in 2008, a successful experiment was only performed now. Scientists were able to stabilize the disilicon molecule, which previously could only be studied at extremely low temperatures on a solid argon matrix. This experiment demonstrated that these organic bases could stabilize a variety of extremely reactive molecules at room temperature.

Scientists choose to explain why this is a great achievement using the periodic table. The columns of groups of elements usually share similar characteristics and chemical properties. For example, group 14 has carbon and silicon, which are quite similar, even though there are significant differences between the two. Carbon oxides are rather well-known – carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide are known virtually to everyone who studied chemistry in school. However, oxides of silicon and molecular chemistry of them are essentially unknown, because they are extremely reactive.

However, silicon monoxide has been described as the most abundant silicon oxide in the universe. Still, because of its chemical properties, it can only be persistent at extremely high temperatures – at about 1,200 degrees Celsius to be exact. One type of silicon oxides can be found on Earth though. It is sand – a network solid wherein each silicon atom bonds to four oxygen atoms in a process that repeats infinitely.

New study finds two new compounds containing Si2O3 and Si2O4 cores, which team of scientists managed to isolate using the carbene stabilization technique, developed back in 2008. This method allowed scientists to stabilize or, in other words, tame the highly reactive silicon oxide moieties at room temperature. Despite how complicated these processes sound to regular science lovers, silicon oxides are already in use and this achievement can only make these applications easier.

Silicon oxide materials are found in every electronic device and could hold many more applications and uses. Synthesizing these molecules could open new doors to new discoveries in the semiconductor industry. This story also shows, how scientists sometimes have to concentrate on very small issues and make discoveries that major part of society cannot understand, but will enjoy the benefits it created. Chemist Gregory H. Robinson rephrased famous quote of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  and said that scientists now “ponder molecules that have never been synthesized, and we ask ‘why not?'”. This is the daily question scientists ask before tackling difficult tasks.

Source: UGA

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