A team of researchers has identified a combination of molecules and layered materials that could revolutionize the construction of smart devices, both in terms of durability and manufacturing cost. Their approach is chronicled in a new study published in the journal ACS Nano.
The technology relies on a combination of the semiconducting molecule buckminsterfullerene (C60) and layered materials like graphene and hBN – a form of carbon and a compound of boron and nitrogen, respectively. According to the researchers, this fusion works because hBN provides electronic compatibility, stability and isolation charge to graphene, while C60 can transform sunlight into electricity.
This process – referred to as van der Waals solids – allows compounds to be brought together and assembled in a predetermined manner. Such a mixture of unique features does not exist in materials naturally.
“Our findings show that this new ‘miracle material’ has similar physical properties to silicon, but it has improved chemical stability, lightness and flexibility, which could potentially be used in smart devices and would be much less likely to break,” lead author Elton Santos of Queen’s University in the United Kingdom said.
After predicting that assembling graphene, hBN and C60 could create a solid with unique physical and chemical properties, Santos mentioned the results of his simulations to collaborators from the University of California, Berkeley, Alex Zettle and Claudia Ojeda-Aristizabal. Together, the team conducted experiments to test Santos’s simulations.
“It is a sort of a ‘dream project’ for a theoretician since the accuracy achieved in the experiments remarkably matched what I predicted and this is not normally easy to find. The model made several assumptions that have proven to be completely right,” Santos said.
One issue that still needs to be addressed is that graphene and the new material architecture lack a “band gap,” which is key to the on-off switching operations performed by electronic devices. The team is already looking into a potential solution involving transition metal dichalcogenides (TMD), as they have band gaps that rival silicon and there are large sources for production. They are also very chemically stable.
“By using these findings, we have now produced a template. But in the future, we hope to add an additional feature with TMDs. These are semiconductors, which bypass the problem of the band gap, so we now have a real transistor on the horizon,” Santos said.
The benefits of the team’s material technology may also extend beyond enhanced durability and reduced manufacturing costs, according to Santos.
“The material also could mean that devices use less energy than before because of the device architecture, so could have improved battery life and less electric shocks,” he said.