Liquid metal nanoreactors enable synthesis of high-entropy alloy nanoparticle arrays

(Nanowerk Spotlight) The field of high-entropy alloys (HEAs) has emerged as a promising frontier in materials science, offering unique properties that surpass those of traditional alloys. Unlike conventional alloys, which typically consist of one primary element with small amounts of other elements added to enhance specific properties, HEAs are composed of five or more principal elements mixed in roughly equal proportions. This complex composition leads to several advantages over traditional alloys.
HEAs often exhibit superior strength-to-weight ratios, making them attractive for aerospace and automotive applications where lightweight yet durable materials are crucial. They also tend to have excellent resistance to wear and corrosion, outperforming many traditional alloys in harsh environments. The unique atomic structure of HEAs contributes to their exceptional thermal stability, allowing them to maintain their properties at high temperatures where conventional alloys might degrade or lose strength.
Furthermore, HEAs have shown promising results in terms of ductility and fracture toughness, often combining strength and flexibility in ways that are difficult to achieve with traditional alloys. This combination of properties makes them potential candidates for use in extreme conditions, such as in nuclear reactors or space exploration equipment.
The complex interactions between the multiple principal elements in HEAs also lead to interesting and sometimes unexpected properties. For instance, some HEAs have demonstrated superior radiation resistance or unique magnetic and electrical characteristics, opening up possibilities for novel applications in electronics and energy technologies.
These advanced alloys have shown potential in various applications ranging from catalysis to aerospace engineering. However, a significant challenge has persisted in the controlled synthesis of HEAs at the nanoscale, particularly in creating ordered arrays of nanoparticles. This limitation has hindered the exploration of HEAs in advanced applications such as nanoelectronics and nanophotonics, where precise spatial arrangement is crucial.
Previous attempts to create HEA nanoparticle arrays have been hampered by the inherent difficulties in managing the diverse physicochemical properties of multiple elements during synthesis. The disparity in reduction potentials, nucleation barriers, and aggregation rates among different elements typically leads to random nucleation and growth, making it challenging to achieve uniform, single-particle formation at predefined locations. Moreover, the extreme reaction conditions often required for HEA formation further complicate efforts to regulate the nucleation and growth processes.
Recent advancements in nanofabrication techniques and a deeper understanding of liquid metal behavior have paved the way for innovative approaches to tackle these longstanding issues. Liquid metals, particularly gallium-based alloys, have garnered attention for their unique properties such as high surface tension, excellent deformability, and the ability to overcome elemental immiscibility. These characteristics, combined with progress in lithographic patterning and controlled deposition methods, have set the stage for novel strategies in HEA synthesis.
In this context, researchers from Wuhan University have developed a groundbreaking method for creating high-entropy alloy nanoparticle arrays using a liquid metal nanoreactor approach. Their work, published in Advanced Materials ("High-Entropy Alloy Array via Liquid Metal Nanoreactor"), demonstrates a significant leap forward in the controlled synthesis of complex alloy nanostructures with unprecedented compositional diversity and spatial precision.
Scheme of the synthesis of HEA array assisted by liquid metal nanoreactor
Scheme of the synthesis of HEA array assisted by liquid metal nanoreactor. (Image: Reproduced with permission by Wiley-VCH Verlag)
The research team's innovative strategy employs liquid gallium as a nanoreactor, leveraging its unique properties to confine and control the nucleation and growth of HEA nanoparticles. The process begins with the precise deposition of liquid gallium and metal salt precursors at specific locations on a substrate using electron beam lithography. Upon thermal annealing under a reductive atmosphere, the liquid metal undergoes coalescence driven by surface energy minimization. This coalescence process forces the surrounding metal atoms to migrate and aggregate, resulting in the formation of a single HEA nanoparticle within each nanoreactor site.
One of the key advantages of this approach is its self-confinement characteristic. Unlike previous methods that relied on additional media or templates to create restricted reaction spaces, the liquid metal nanoreactor strategy avoids the introduction of impurities. This self-contained process ensures the purity of the resulting HEA nanoparticles while maintaining precise spatial control.
The researchers demonstrated the versatility of their method by successfully synthesizing HEA nanoparticle arrays with varying compositions, ranging from quinary (five-element) to undecimal (eleven-element) systems. Notably, they achieved the formation of octonary (GaPtFeCoNiCuRuIr) and undecimal (GaPtFeCoNiCuCrMnPdRhRu) HEA arrays, showcasing the technique's ability to overcome elemental immiscibility and differences in aggregation rates among diverse metal elements.
Extensive characterization of the synthesized HEA nanoparticle arrays revealed their high quality and uniformity. Energy-dispersive spectroscopy mapping showed homogeneous elemental distribution within individual nanoparticles, while atomic force microscopy confirmed the consistent height of the array structures. Transmission electron microscopy and selected-area electron diffraction further demonstrated the high crystallinity and single-phase nature of the HEA nanoparticles.
The researchers also explored the mechanism behind the formation of single-particle HEA arrays. Through density functional theory calculations and molecular dynamics simulations, they elucidated the role of liquid gallium in facilitating particle coalescence. The low diffusion energy barrier of gallium on the substrate surface and its ability to enhance the diffusion rates of other metal elements within the alloy system were identified as crucial factors promoting single-particle formation.
To demonstrate the potential applications of their HEA nanoparticle arrays, the research team showcased their use in holographic imaging. They fabricated metasurfaces using both HEA and binary alloy nanoparticle arrays and compared their optical properties. The HEA-based metasurfaces exhibited superior broadband absorption characteristics and maintained clear holographic displays across a wide range of visible wavelengths, outperforming their binary alloy counterparts.
This breakthrough in HEA nanoparticle array synthesis opens up new avenues for exploring the unique properties of these complex alloy systems at the nanoscale. The ability to create ordered arrays of HEA nanoparticles with precise spatial control and compositional tunability provides a powerful platform for fundamental research and practical applications in fields such as nanophotonics, nanoelectronics, and catalysis.
The implications of this research extend beyond materials science. The demonstrated holographic imaging capabilities of HEA nanoparticle arrays suggest potential applications in advanced display technologies, information encryption, and optical computing. Moreover, the high tunability of HEA compositions could lead to the development of tailored nanomaterials with optimized properties for specific applications, ranging from energy storage to biomedical devices.
As research in this field progresses, it is likely that we will see further refinements in the synthesis process, potentially enabling even greater control over nanoparticle size, shape, and composition. The integration of HEA nanoparticle arrays into functional devices and systems represents an exciting frontier, with the potential to drive innovations in multiple technological domains.
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
Copyright © Nanowerk LLC

Become a Spotlight guest author! Join our large and growing group of guest contributors. Have you just published a scientific paper or have other exciting developments to share with the nanotechnology community? Here is how to publish on