August 18, 2004
S’porean’s blooming science work

Cambridge scientist may be first to create 'nanoflowers'

By Zubaidah Nazeer

WHEN Ho Ghim Wei started her nanoscience project, she had no idea that her experiments with silicon carbide compounds would generate materials not only exciting for their potential applications, but also breathtaking in their beauty.

Now, the Singaporean’s work is being hailed by the United Kingdom-based Institute of Physics, a leading international professional body with over 37,000 members.

The latest issue of the institute’s journal Nanotechnology carries a collection of Ms Ho’s photomicrographs of tiny “flowers” and “trees” less than one thousandth the width of a human hair.

UKnow, a publication by the British High Commission here, described the “stunning” pictures as “some of the most beautiful science images of the year so far”.

Ms Ho, 29, is a PhD student at Cambridge University’s nanoscience centre. She is believed to be the first scientist to create these materials she calls “nanoflowers”.

But creating aesthetically pleasing versions of the crystalline silicon carbide compounds was accidental.

In a telephone interview with Streats yesterday, Ms Ho said that she was actually exploring a new kind of silicon carbide compound as part of her research for her thesis on nanowires and its uses.

The “flower” images are actually nanometre scale wires.

She said: “I want to explore the creation of new materials from the silicon carbide compound which will have new properties and applications.”

Silicon carbide is well-known for its hardy mechanical properties such as the ability to withstand high temperatures and corrosion.

She took about 20 minutes to grow the “flowers” from droplets of a liquid metal (gallium) on a silicon surface after passing methane gas over them.

On the prospects of her creation, Ms Ho’s supervisor, Professor Mark Welland, who is also the head of Cambridge’s Nanoscale Science Laboratory, said: “The unique structures shown in these images will have a range of exciting applications.

“Two that are currently being explored are their use as water repellent coatings and as a base for a new type of solar cell.”

Also commenting on her work, Dr Paul Danielsen, director of communications at the Institute of Physics, said in media release: “Science can be beautiful. These images show cutting-edge nanotechnology research... but are striking images in their own right. Maybe science and art aren’t so different after all.”

Ms Ho, the second of four siblings, said she takes after her civil engineer father, adding that she pursued nanoscience because it “is an exciting area of science and there are lots of discoveries waiting to be made”.

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