February 2022
Physicists observe an exotic "multiferroic" state in an atomically thin material
This artistic rendering shows the nanoscale spin spirals that enable the emergence of a multiferroic state in 2D material NiI2. Credits: Image: Ella Maru Studio
Discovery shows for the first time that multiferroic properties can exist in a two-dimensional material; could lead to more efficient magnetic memory devices.
MIT physicists have discovered an exotic “multiferroic” state in a material that is as thin as a single layer of atoms. Their observation is the first to confirm that multiferroic properties can exist in a perfectly two-dimensional material. The findings, published in Nature, pave the way for developing smaller, faster, and more efficient data-storage devices built with ultrathin multiferroic bits, as well as other new nanoscale structures.

A new, inexpensive catalyst speeds the
production of oxygen from water
Illustration depicts an electrochemical reaction, splitting water molecules (at left, with oxygen atom in red, and two hydrogen atoms in white) into oxygen molecules (at right), taking place within the structure of the team’s metal hydroxide organic frameworks, depicted as the lattices at top and bottom. Credits: Image: Courtesy of the researchers
The material could replace rare metals and lead to more economical production of carbon-neutral fuels.
An electrochemical reaction that splits apart water molecules to produce oxygen is at the heart of multiple approaches aiming to produce alternative fuels for transportation. But this reaction has to be facilitated by a catalyst material, and today’s versions require the use of rare and expensive elements such as iridium, limiting the potential of such fuel production.

Now, researchers at MIT and elsewhere have developed an entirely new type of catalyst material, called a metal hydroxide-organic framework (MHOF), which is made of inexpensive and abundant components. The family of materials allows engineers to precisely tune the catalyst’s structure and composition to the needs of a particular chemical process, and it can then match or exceed the performance of conventional, more expensive catalysts.

New plant-derived composite is tough
as bone and hard as aluminum
A new woody composite, engineered by a team at MIT, is tough as bone and hard as aluminum, and it could pave way for naturally-derived plastics. This image shows a tooth printed by the team resting on a background of wood cells. Credits: Image: Figure courtesy of the researchers, edited by MIT News.
The material could pave the way for sustainable plastics.
The strongest part of a tree lies not in its trunk or its sprawling roots, but in the walls of its microscopic cells.

A single wood cell wall is constructed from fibers of cellulose ­— nature’s most abundant polymer, and the main structural component of all plants and algae. Within each fiber are reinforcing cellulose nanocrystals, or CNCs, which are chains of organic polymers arranged in nearly perfect crystal patterns. At the nanoscale, CNCs are stronger and stiffer than Kevlar. If the crystals could be worked into materials in significant fractions, CNCs could be a route to stronger, more sustainable, naturally derived plastics.

Now, an MIT team has engineered a composite made mostly from cellulose nanocrystals mixed with a bit of synthetic polymer. The organic crystals take up about 60 to 90 percent of the material — the highest fraction of CNCs achieved in a composite to date.

More sensitive X-ray imaging
Researchers at MIT have shown how one could improve the efficiency of scintillators by at least tenfold by changing the material’s surface. This image shows a TEM grid on scotch tape, with the right side showing the scene after it is corrected. Credits: Image: Courtesy of the researchers, edited by MIT News
Improvements in the material that converts X-rays into light, for medical or industrial images, could allow a tenfold signal enhancement.
Scintillators are materials that emit light when bombarded with high-energy particles or X-rays. In medical or dental X-ray systems, they convert incoming X-ray radiation into visible light that can then be captured using film or photosensors. They’re also used for night-vision systems and for research, such as in particle detectors or electron microscopes.

Researchers at MIT have now shown how one could improve the efficiency of scintillators by at least tenfold, and perhaps even a hundredfold, by changing the material’s surface to create certain nanoscale configurations, such as arrays of wave-like ridges. While past attempts to develop more efficient scintillators have focused on finding new materials, the new approach could in principle work with any of the existing materials.

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