|An incredible shrinking material: how scandium trifluoride contracts with heat revealed news|
|They shrink when you heat ’em. Most materials expand when heated, but a few contract. Now engineers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have figured out how one of these curious materials, scandium trifluoride (ScF3), does the trick – a finding, they say, that will lead to a deeper understanding of all kinds of materials.
The researchers, led by graduate student Chen Li, published their results in the 4 November issue of Physical Review Letters (PRL).
Materials that don’t expand under heat aren’t just an oddity. They’re useful in a variety of applications-in mechanical machines such as clocks, for example, that have to be extremely precise. Materials that contract could counteract the expansion of more conventional ones, helping devices remain stable even when the heat is on.
“When you heat a solid, most of the heat goes into the vibrations of the atoms,” explains Brent Fultz, professor of materials science and applied physics and a coauthor of the paper. In normal materials, this vibration causes atoms to move apart and the material to expand. A few of the known shrinking materials, however, have unique crystal structures that cause them to contract when heated, a property called negative thermal expansion. But because these crystal structures are complicated, scientists have not been able to clearly see how heat-in the form of atomic vibrations-could lead to contraction.
But in 2010 researchers discovered negative thermal expansion in ScF3, a powdery substance with a relatively simple crystal structure. To figure out how its atoms vibrated under heat, Li, Fultz, and their colleagues used a computer to simulate each atom’s quantum behavior.