the sculpture you can't see

By Emeritus Professor Len Lindoy

We work to create complex and beautiful molecular structures that, until recently, could only be made at a life-sized scale.

Throughout human history aesthetically pleasing objects have been universally created and admired.

We are just beginning to learn how to mimic this aspect of everyday life, building intricate structures that display artistic nuances at the molecular level, effectively spanning art and science.

Our group recently published a Nature Communications paper (DOI:10.1038/ncomms1208) describing work carried out by Dr Feng Li and Dr Jack Clegg with help from Dr René Macquart. We created a sculptural form of three interlinked arms, the shape of which could be described as a cross between an architecturally-designed piece of children's playground equipment and an attachment from a futuristic kitchen mixer.

The structure was formed in the lab over three months, when an iron solution plus other molecular building blocks was left to stand in a flask, resulting in deep red-coloured crystals.

Initially the molecule's structure was football-shaped, with each of the arms attached to a point at both ends, with a void in the middle. But we found, in an apparent demonstration of Aristotle's maxim that Nature abhors a vacuum, that over time the arms became knotted and interlinked.

The resulting shape is known as a 'universal 3-ravel motif'. The structure exhibits both remarkable intricacy and unusual beauty in its molecular form. There are only three or four previous examples of other molecular structures showing related kinds of exotic entanglement.

While still in its infancy, this research into how molecules assemble could ultimately be applied in several areas including the development of molecular electronics. The work could also contribute to the development of tiny "molecular machines" that, for example, might mimic the role of a natural enzyme.

The work is part of an ARC-funded project led that also involved chemists from James Cook University.

The "universal 3-ravel motif"

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