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Incredibly thin silver for touchscreens won’t tarnish

Scientists have laid down the thinnest, smoothest layer of silver that can survive exposure to air. This could change the production of touchscreens and flat or flexible displays.

The work could also help improve computing power, affecting both the transfer of information within a silicon chip and the patterning of the chip itself through metamaterial superlenses.

By combining the silver with a little bit of aluminum, the researchers found that it was possible to produce exceptionally thin, smooth layers of silver that are resistant to tarnishing. They applied an anti-reflective coating to make one thin metal layer up to 92.4 percent transparent.

The team showed that the silver coating could guide light about 10 times as far as other metal waveguides—a property that could make it useful for faster computing. And they layered the silver films into a metamaterial hyperlens that could be used to create dense patterns with feature sizes a fraction of what is possible with ordinary ultraviolet methods, on silicon chips, for instance.

Screens of all stripes need transparent electrodes to control which pixels light up, but touchscreens are particularly dependent on them. A modern touch screen is made of a transparent conductive layer covered with a nonconductive layer. It senses electrical changes where a conductive object—such as a finger—is pressed against the screen.

“The transparent conductor market has been dominated to this day by one single material,” says L. Jay Guo, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan.

This material, indium tin oxide, is projected to become expensive as demand for touch screens continues to grow; there are relatively few known sources of indium, Guo says. “Before, it was very cheap. Now, the price is rising sharply,” he says.

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The ultrathin film could make silver a worthy successor.

Usually, it’s impossible to make a continuous layer of silver less than 15 nanometers thick, or roughly 100 silver atoms. Silver has a tendency to cluster together in small islands rather than extend into an even coating, Guo says.

By adding about 6 percent aluminum, the researchers coaxed the metal into a film of less than half that thickness—seven nanometers. What’s more, when they exposed it to air, it didn’t immediately tarnish as pure silver films do. After several months, the film maintained its conductive properties and transparency. And it was firmly stuck on, whereas pure silver comes off glass with Scotch tape.

In addition to their potential to serve as transparent conductors for touch screens, the thin silver films offer two more tricks, both having to do with silver’s unparalleled ability to transport visible and infrared light waves along its surface. The light waves shrink and travel as so-called surface plasmon polaritons, showing up as oscillations in the concentration of electrons on the silver’s surface.

Those oscillations encode the frequency of the light, preserving it so that it can emerge on the other side. While optical fibers can’t scale down to the size of copper wires on today’s computer chips, plasmonic waveguides could allow information to travel in optical rather than electronic form for faster data transfer. As a waveguide, the smooth silver film could transport the surface plasmons over a centimeter—enough to get by inside a computer chip.

The plasmonic capability of the silver film can also be harnessed in metamaterials, which handle light in ways that break the usual rules of optics. Because the light travels with a much shorter wavelength as it moves along the metal surface, the film alone acts as a superlens. Or, to make out even smaller features, the thin silver layers can be alternated with a dielectric material, such as glass, to make a hyperlens.

A little zap turns this glass from clear to black

Such lenses can image objects that are smaller than the wavelength of light, which would blur in an optical microscope. It can also enable laser patterning—such as is used to etch transistors into silicon chips today—to achieve smaller features.

The first author is Cheng Zhang, a recent doctoral graduate in electrical engineering and computer science who now works as a postdoctoral researcher at National Institute of Standards and Technology.

A paper on this research appears in Advanced Materials. Support for the work came from the National Science Foundation and the Beijing Institute of Collaborative Innovation. The University of Michigan has applied for a patent and is seeking partners to bring the technology to market.

Source: University of Michigan

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