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Spatial periodicity in molecular switching


The ultimate miniaturization of future devices will require the use of functional molecules at the nanoscale and their integration into larger architectures1,2. Switches represent a prototype of such functional molecules because they exhibit characteristic states of different physical/chemical properties, which can be addressed reversibly3. Recently, various switching entities have been studied and switching of single molecules on surfaces has been demonstrated4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13. However, for functional molecules to be used in a future device, it will be necessary to selectively address individual molecules, preferentially in an ordered pattern. Here, we show that azobenzene derivatives in the trans form, adsorbed in a homogeneous two-dimensional layer, can be collectively switched with spatial selectivity, thus forming a periodic pattern of cis isomers. We find that the probability of a molecule switching is not equally distributed, but is strongly dependent on both the surrounding molecules and the supporting surface, which precisely determine the switching capability of each individual molecule. Consequently, exactly the same lattices of cis isomers are created in repeated erasing and re-switching cycles. Our results demonstrate a conceptually new approach to spatially addressing single functional molecules.

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Figure 1: Different surface structures caused by the molecular asymmetry of M-TBA.
Figure 2: Selective molecular switching for different structures.
Figure 3: Molecular switching in periodic arrays.
Figure 4: Erasing and re-switching.


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The authors thank K.-H. Rieder, J.I. Pascual and M. Wolf for careful reading of the manuscript. Financial support was provided by the German Research Foundation (DFG) through the SFB 658 (projects A1 and B8) and through contract no. GR 2697/1-2. C.D. thanks the Fondazione CRTrieste for financial support. This research was funded by the Progetto D4 (European Social Fund, Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia and Italian Ministry of Welfare).

Author information




S.H. and L.G. conceived the experiments. C.D. and L.G. performed the experiments and analysed the data. M.V.P., J.S. and S.H. synthesized the molecules. L.G. wrote the paper. C.D., S.H. and L.G. discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Stefan Hecht or Leonhard Grill.

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Dri, C., Peters, M., Schwarz, J. et al. Spatial periodicity in molecular switching. Nature Nanotech 3, 649–653 (2008).

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