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UCLA chemists have made, at the nanoscale, a molecular compound of interlocked rings that has the shape of the ancient King Solomon's knot, a symbol of wisdom that is thousands of years old and is widely used in architecture and works of art. The Bible portrays Solomon as great in wisdom, wealth and power.
"King Solomon, according to Italian legend, was on a hill and was charged by God with protecting a village from large boulders that were going to roll down and destroy the village," said UCLA chemistry graduate student Cari Pentecost, lead author of the Solomon's knot research, which was published in this year's first issue of the German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie. "King Solomon was holding three large boulders and took a rope and devised this knot to support the boulders and protect the town."
"Our research is a marriage of nanoscience, mathematics and art," Pentecost added.
The Solomon's knot is composed of two rings that interlace each other four times, with alternating crossing points that go over, under, over and under as one traces around each of the rings. Pentecost's nano-version is roughly 2 nanometers high — about 1,000 times smaller than a red blood cell and 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair — by 1.2 nanometers wide.
Pentecost conducts research in the laboratory of J. Fraser Stoddart, director of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), who holds UCLA's Fred Kavli Chair in Nanosystems Sciences and who last December was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain for his work in chemistry and nanotechnology. The Solomon's knot research is federally funded by the National Science Foundation.
Pentecost produced the molecular Solomon's knot while performing experiments on molecular Borromean rings, which are comprised of three interlocked rings that form an inseparable union such that cutting any one ring results in the other two falling apart. Stoddart's research team developed this mechanically interlocked Borromean compound in 2004, and the research was published in the May 28, 2004, issue of Science.
Pentecost decided to change the recipe for making molecular Borromean rings ever so slightly. With the knowledge that if she used either zinc or copper ions as the template for a particular chemical reaction, she would get only the molecular Borromean rings, Pentecost instead used equal amounts of zinc and copper ions, and the result was crystals of the molecular Solomon's knot 10 out of 10 times.
"Synthetic chemistry is ready to make substantial inroads into some quite exotic molecules in the shape of knots and links," said Stoddart, who believes the molecular Borromean rings and the Solomon's knot are likely to have future applications. "There is oftentimes a connection between the beauty and elegance of a chemical structure and its potential usefulness, and this Solomon knot structure is quite beautiful and elegant."
The Solomon's knot is carved, painted, sculpted, stitched, crocheted, knitted, inlaid and beaded in cultural relics from Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, according to Lois Rose Rose, author of "Seeing Solomon's Knot" and a UCLA graduate. The design, which is found in numerous buildings, can be seen in the floor tiles and on the wooden ceilings of UCLA's Powell Library and on the outside architecture of UCLA's Haines Hall and Moore Hall.
"Here I am, making molecules of these Solomon's knots, and everywhere I go on the campus, they are staring me in the face or I am walking into them," Pentecost said.
Speaking of the excitement of nanoscience, Stoddart said, "We have to try to rediscover the spirit of the Renaissance, when there were no boundaries. Nanoscience is a replay of previous industrial revolutions. In the 21st century, people will start to appreciate what a nanoparticle or nanowire is, just as in the past they embraced the invention of the wheel or the highway."
Stoddart said that making the molecular counterparts of Borromean rings and Solomon's knots is a form of chemical evolution on the nanoscale.
"In the making of these exotic compounds, chemical bonds are being broken just as fast as they are being formed, until the compound that feels most comfortable emerges as the final product," he said. "A kind of Darwinian selection process is going on in a playful kind of way in the 'room at the top.' Cari Pentecost's contribution was to find, accidentally, the particular set of keys that opens the combination lock to the door to yet another of these rooms at the top."
Co-authors on the research are former UCLA postdoctoral scholars Kelly Chichak and Andrea Peters, both of whom worked in Stoddart's research group; Gareth Cave, an X-ray crystallographer at Nottingham Trent University; and Stuart Cantrill, a former research associate in Stoddart's research group.
The CNSI, a joint enterprise between UCLA and the University of California, Santa Barbara, is exploring the power and potential of organizing and manipulating matter to engineer "new integrated and emergent systems and devices, by starting down at the nanoscale level, that will aid and abet information technology, energy production, storage and saving, environmental well-being, and the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of chronic and degenerative diseases with an impact that far outstretches our comprehension of life to date," Stoddart said.
When Stoddart was appointed director of the CNSI in 2003, he also assumed the Fred Kavli Chair of NanoSystems Sciences. Previously, Stoddart held UCLA's Saul Winstein Chair in Organic Chemistry, having succeeded Donald J. Cram, the 1987 Nobel laureate in chemistry. The Winstein Chair will be held in abeyance while Stoddart serves as director of the CNSI. For more information about Stoddart's research, please see http://stoddart.chem.ucla.edu .
California's largest university, UCLA enrolls approximately 38,000 students per year and offers degrees from the UCLA College of Letters and Science and 11 professional schools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the top five universities and colleges nationally in total research-and-development spending, receiving more than $820 million a year in competitively awarded federal and state grants and contracts. For every $1 state taxpayers invest in UCLA, the university generates almost $9 in economic activity, resulting in an annual $6 billion economic impact on the Greater Los Angeles region. The university's health care network treats 450,000 patients per year. UCLA employs more than 27,000 faculty and staff, has more than 350,000 living alumni and has been home to five Nobel Prize recipients.
About the Kavli Foundation
Dedicated to the advancement of science for the benefit of humanity, the Kavli Foundation supports scientific research, honors scientific achievement, and promotes public understanding of scientists and their work. The foundation focuses on science of both the greatest and the smallest physical dimensions, as well as the science of the human brain. Its mission is implemented through an international program of research institutes, prizes, professorships and symposia in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.
About the CNSI
Established in December 2000 by the state of California as one of the University of California's four Institutes of Science and Innovation, the CNSI forges partnerships with private industry as a means to accelerate technological advances for the people of California and society in general. The institute represents an interdisciplinary collaboration between UCLA and UC Santa Barbara faculty from the life and physical sciences, engineering, and medicine. In 2007, the CNSI at UCLA will relocate to a new 180,000-square-foot facility housing a 260-seat theater, wet and dry laboratories, fully outfitted conference rooms and classrooms, and three floors of core facilities including electron microscopes, atomic-force microscopes, X-ray diffractometers, optical microscopies and spectroscopies, and high-throughput robotics. In addition, UCLA is funding 15 jointly-hired CNSI faculty to ensure that the institute will possess the expertise necessary to make rapid progress in nanoscience and nanotechnology amid fierce international competition. For more about the CNSI, please visit http://www.cnsi.ucla.edu .
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