Changing the chemistry of a compound is difficult by itself, but modifying materials only a few atoms thick is its own challenge.

A group of University of Chicago scientists announced an innovative method to tailor the surface groups of a class of compounds known as MXenes. Surface groups are the elements or compounds on the surface of a material. When scientists change these groups, the material displays different properties and can be used for applications such as building better batteries and new superconductors.

“When it comes to ceramic materials like titanium carbide, it is hard to modify its properties once it is created,” said graduate student Vlad Kamysbayev, the lead author of the study, which was published on August 21 in Science. “Prior to this study, there were no experimental methods to precisely manipulate surface groups’ chemistry for two-dimensional materials.” However, when Kamysbayev and his colleagues employed a new strategy to install and remove surface groups, the resulting MXenes showed distinctive structural and electronic properties.

Materials that are two-dimensional, like titanium carbide MXene, can make taking measurements difficult and require special instruments for scientists to understand what is happening at the atomic level. “The most difficult thing about working with two-dimensional materials that are just several atoms thick is observation,” said Prof. Dmitri Talapin, an expert in inorganic nanostructures. “It can be challenging to understand what is exactly happening, but with an arsenal of methods complementing one another, you can start to get a picture.”

Read more at UChicago News.