Low-temperature fraud detection

A low-temperature plasma probe can identify art fraud without damaging the artwork, which is important should the work turn out to be genuine.

Many priceless works of art are very delicate, so restoration, conservation, dating and authentication require sophisticated technical methods that avoid interfering with the substance of the work. Now, Sichun Zhang and colleagues at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, have developed a new mass spectrometric imaging technique that can characterise paintings and calligraphy by barely scratching the surface.

In conventional mass spectrometry a substance is vaporised and then ionised to produce electrically charged particles of different sizes depending on the chemical structure of the compound. The ions are accelerated by an electric field and spread out by a magnetic field to produce a spectrum as the magnetic field makes particles of different mass to charge ratio deviate more or less than each other. Imaging mass spectrometry involves scanning a surface and releasing ions directly from the surface using special ionization methods. Unfortunately, these techniques require vacuum conditions, which limits sample size so that previously a tiny cutting would need to be removed from an artwork for analysis.

Probing reveals hidden information about art work without causing damage

The Chinese team has developed a low-temperature plasma probe, which consists of a fused capillary and two electrodes made of aluminium foil. High voltage alternating current applied to this probe induces a discharge in the capillary forming a low-temperature plasma; the probe reaches a mere 30 Celsius. However, in this state the helium plasma has energetic and excited enough to eject a few molecules from the surface of a sample and ionize them without measureable damage to a work of art.

The researchers used their approach to test seals, stamped signatures on Chinese paintings and calligraphy. They could reveal variations in ink composition easily, making it possible to differentiate between authentic and forged seals.


Angew Chem Int Edn, 2010, online
Professor Dr. Xinrong ZHANG

Metallic liquid crystals

A new class of materials formed by combining liquid crystals and metal clusters glow intensely red in the infra-red region of the electromagnetic spectrum when irradiated over a broad range of wavelengths. The materials, dubbed clustomesogens, could be used in analytical instrumentation and potentially in display technologies.

Liquid crystals are well known in display technologies from digital watches to flat panel televisions. As their name suggests, they are at once liquid and can flow, but their molecules can also be oriented into something akin to a crystal state, usually under the influence of an electric field.

A second class of materials of interest to the optoelectronics field is metal clusters. Clusters are aggregates of just a few atoms, and so their properties are not those of individual atoms nor of the bulk metal, but somewhere in between. Indeed, metal clusters show some rather unusual electronic, magnetic, and optical properties because of the presence of the particular types of bonds that form between metals when just a few are present.

Now, Yann Molard, of the University of Rennes, in France, and colleagues there and at the University of Bucharest have united the two classes in clustomesogens to create metal clusters that exist in a liquid-crystalline phase.

Liquid crystals containing bonds between metal atoms are rare and usually limited to compounds in which just two metal atoms are connected in each unit. Molard and colleagues have produced liquid crystals that contains octahedral clusters made of six molybdenum atoms. Eight bromide ions sit on the eight surfaces of the octahedron, six fluorides and an aromatic organic group, or ligand, is at each vertex of the octahedron. These aromatic ligands each have three long hydrocarbon chains also ending in a pair of aromatic rings.

Yann Molard
Yann Molard

Simple warming these materials initiates a process of self-organization in which the clusters stretch out to form long, narrow units arranged in what is known as a lamellar, plate-like, structure. The flat rings at the ends of the ligands of neighbouring layers are interleaved and the structure has liquid-crystalline properties.

“The association of mesomorphism with the peculiar properties of metallic clusters should lead to clustomesogens that offer great potential in the design of new electricity-to-light energy conversion systems, optically based sensors, and displays,” the team says.


Angew Chem Int Edn, 2010, 49, 3351-3355
Yann Molard homepage

Tubes in space

Carbon nanotubes form in space but use a metal-free chemistry until now unavailable to chemists on Earth. The discovery is a surprising outcome of laboratory experiments designed by Joseph Nuth at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues. They were hoping to understand how carbon atoms are recycled in stellar nurseries, the regions of space where stars and planets are born, but the finding could have applications in nanotechnology, as well as help explain some characteristics of supernovae.

Writing in the journal Astrophys J Lett, Nuth and colleagues explain how astrochemistry makes carbon nanotubes without requiring a metal catalyst. Nanotubes are produced, they say, when graphite dust particles are exposed to a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases, conditions that exist in interstellar space.

The finding corroborates the discovery of graphite whiskers, bigger than nano nanotubes, in three meteorites. The meteoric discovery hinted at why some supernovae appear dimmer and farther away than they ought to be based on calculations using current models. Nuth’s approach is a variation of a well-established way to produce gasoline or other liquid fuels from coal. It’s known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, and researchers suspect that it could have produced at least some of the simple carbon-based compounds in the early solar system. Nuth proposes that the nanotubes yielded by such reactions could be the key to the recycling of the carbon that gets released when carbon-rich grains are destroyed by supernova explosions.

Stellar Nursery
A stellar nursery could be home to carbon nanotube factories (Credit: NASA, http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap021102.html)

The structure of the carbon nanotubes produced by Nuth and colleagues was determined by materials scientist Yuki Kimura, of Tohoku University, Japan, using transmission electron microscopy. He observed particles on which the original smooth graphite gradually morphed into an unstructured region and finally to an area rich in tangled hair-like masses. A closer look with an even more powerful microscope showed that these tendrils were in fact cup-stacked carbon nanotubes, resembling a stack of disposable drinking cups with the bottoms removed. If further testing indicates that the new method is suitable for materials-science applications, it could supplement, or even replace, the familiar way of making nanotubes, explains Kimura.

Researchers might also now evaluate whether graphite whiskers absorb light. A positive result would lend credence to the proposition that the presence of these molecules in space affects the observations of some supernovae.


Astrophys J Lett, 2010, 710, L98-L101