In a milestone for nanotechnology, scientists have built three-dimensional molecular structures on a surface for the first time ever. Previously, it had only been possible to create two-dimensional structures in this way. The research team from the University of Nottingham believe that the technique will boost the development of new optical, electronic and molecular computing technologies.

The 3D structures were created utilizing a natural biological process known as self-assembly. The Nottingham team introduced a spherical Carbon-60 “guest” molecule onto a surface patterned by a two-dimensional array of tetracarboxylic acid "host" molecules. The host molecules were drawn to the guest, and formed a horizontal layer around it, parallel to the surface.

“It is the molecular equivalent of throwing a pile of bricks up into the air and then as they come down again they spontaneously build a house,” said Prof. Neil Champness. “Until now this has only been achievable in 2D, so to continue the analogy, the molecular ‘bricks’ would only form a path or a patio but our breakthrough now means that we can start to build in the third dimension. It’s a significant step forward to nanotechnology.”

Champness and his colleague Prof. Peter Beton have spent the past four years working on this project. Their research was recently published in the journal Nature Chemistry.