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Spontaneous formation of ordered structures in thin films of metals supported on an elastomeric polymer


Spontaneous generation of complex order in apparently simple systems is both arresting and potentially useful1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. Here we describe the appearance of complex, ordered structures induced by the buckling of thin metal films owing to thermal contraction of an underlying substrate. We deposit the films from the vapour phase on a thermally expanded polymer (polydimethylsiloxane, PDMS). Subsequent cooling of the polymer creates compressive stress in the metal film that is relieved by buckling with a uniform wavelength of 20–50 micrometres. The waves can be controlled and orientated by relief structures in the surface of the polymer, which can set up intricate, ordered patterns over large areas. We can account qualitatively for the size and form of the patterned features in terms of the non-uniform stresses developed in the film near steps on the polymer substrate. This patterning process may find applications in optical devices such as diffraction gratings and optical sensors, and as the basis for methods of strain analysis in materials.

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Figure 1: Preparation of metal films on PDMS.
Figure 2: Optical micrographs showing representative patterns of waves that formed when the metals were evaporated onto warm (110 °C) PDMS, and the sample then cooled to room temperature.
Figure 3: How the wavelength changes with a modified layer of PDMS at the surface.
Figure 4: Ordering of waves on a surface of PDMS patterned in a bas-relief structure.


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We thank D. Munn for helpful discussions. This work was supported by the NSF, the Office of Naval Research, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. N.B. thanks the Department of Defense for a predoctoral fellowship.

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Correspondence to George M. Whitesides.

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Bowden, N., Brittain, S., Evans, A. et al. Spontaneous formation of ordered structures in thin films of metals supported on an elastomeric polymer. Nature 393, 146–149 (1998).

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