October 20, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Etch-a-sketch is a classic childhood toy. In fact, it’s so well-   known it even makes a cameo in Toy Story. Now, 50 years on, it’s hard to see how you could re-invent this art pad, but some researchers at the London Centre for Nanotechnology may have done just that, on an nano-scale at least.

The team have discovered they can use an X-ray beam to draw  shapes, by giving a material high superconductivity, (when a  material causes no energy to be lost as electricity flows through  it).

They use a ‘pad’ made of oxygen, copper and lanthanium, an element also used for hybrid car batteries. They then shine an X-ray ‘pen’ onto the pad to create areas where the electricity can flow un-opposed. This occurs as the oxygen atoms beneath the X-ray beam rearrange, to allow electricity to flow more easily through them. This leaves behind a trail, or drawing, which can then be wiped off using a heat treatment, in the same way you could erase a drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch by shaking it.

The scientists so far have used the method of changing a material’s structure to draw very precise circuits, which can be altered in one simple step. This is a huge discovery for technology and will have an impact on everything which uses superconductors, from MRI scans to MAGLEV trains.

Prof Bianconi, the leader of the research team said, “It is amazing that in a few simple steps, we can now add superconducting ‘intelligence’ directly to a material consisting mainly of the common elements copper and oxygen.”