It’s been only a week ago that I wrote about the increasing competition for graphene. But as I said then, there are still some exciting advances based on graphene. An example is photonics, which is an area where traditionally graphene perhaps has not been as strong as in electronics. A reason for this is that being only a single atomic layer thin, graphene initially wasn’t expected to show much interaction with light. One of the more intriguing historic results in this area has been the fact that the absorption of light in graphene is determined by one of nature’s most fundamental numbers, the fine structure constant.
Plasmons in graphene can be created by illuminating the tip of an atomic force microscope (grey) with an infrared laser beam (red). Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Fei Z. et al. Nature 487, 82–85 (2012). doi:10.1038/nature11253
But absorption of light is not where the true potential of graphene lies, namely on the nanoscale. On the same scale as electronic applications, because ultimately the aim is to achieve photonic functionality on a chip.
However, the control of light on the nanoscale typically requires surface plasmons. These are collective movements of electrons at the surface of metals. So in a sense surface plasmons function a bit like antenna that can focus light into tiny spots. [...]
Move over graphene, there is competition in town. A new type of two-dimensional materials – with the far less appealing family name, transition metal dichalcogenides – are increasingly gaining attention. Well, at least they’re giving it a shot. Graphene, a sheet of carbon atoms only one atomic layer thick, still has plenty going for itself in terms of electronic, optical and mechanical properties. There seems nothing that graphene can’t do.
On the other hand, there are also limits. When it comes to its electronic properties graphene is not a semiconductor in the same was as silicon is. It is lacking a bandgap, a gap in its electronic states that is important for light emitters and for some electronic devices.
Schematic model of transition metal dichalcogenide atomic layers. The yellow balls represent the chalcogenide atoms, the blue ones the transition metals. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Nature Nanotechnology (2012). doi:10.1038/nnano.2012.193
Transition metal dichalcogenides offer an advantage there. They are semiconductors, and they can have a bandgap. And as their name says, they are formed by a combination of chalcogens such as sulphur or selenium and transition metals such as molybdenum or tungsten. Typical examples are MoS2 or MoSe2. These materials have become such hot stuff now that their properties have been reviewed in this month’s issue of Nature Nanotechnology. And even though the field is still young, there is plenty to review. [...]
For the past weeks this blog has been more quiet than usual. Mostly, I was busy with a number of projects, including the co-organisation of a Nature Conference – ‘Frontiers in Electronic Materials: Correlation Effects and Memristive Phenomena‘. The conference took place in Aachen/Germany, and was organized in collaboration with the Jülich-Aachen Research Alliance (JARA) formed by the RWTH Aachen University and the Helmholtz research centre in Jülich – who did a great job in getting this meeting off the ground. Rainer Waser in particular dedicated a tremendous amount of work to the conference. And with close to 600 attendees, the popularity of the conference certainly exceeded all our expectations.
I do not intend to summarize all the interesting talks at the conference here. Instead, I like to focus on two aspects that I think contributed in particular to the success of the conference, and that could be of interest also to those that couldn’t attend the meeting. They’re related to the scope of the conference and its organisation. [...]
A scanning tunnelling microscope image of a single-atom transistor during fabrication. The pink colours represent the areas where a single phosphorus atom (centre) as well as phosphorus source and drain contacts will be placed. The gate contacts that control the transistor action from the side are not visible here. Credit: Martin Fuechsle
When Gordon Moore made his observation in 1965 that the number of transistors integrated on a single silicon chip is doubling roughly every two years, the only logical end point for such a trend would be a transistor made from a single atom. This point has now been reached. Writing in Nature Nanotechnology, Michelle Simmons from the University of New South Wales in Sydney and colleagues report a single-atom transistor, the world’s smallest, on a silicon chip. The transistor is based on current flowing through a single atom of phosphorus embedded in a silicon wafer. [...]
A beautifully looking graphics, isn’t it? But there is a major caveat. As its creators would agree, this image is only a very crude depiction of reality and shouldn’t be used for any scientific purpose… (c) LANES, EPFL
Nanotechnology is a wonderful science that has pushed functional devices to sizes not far away from the size of atoms. So small that if you want to image such structures, even a conventional electron microscope wouldn’t get you far. There is no way to directly see what is going on. This is a common problem. Take condensed matter physics – it is impossible to directly visualize the various interactions and events taking place inside a crystal. Or photonics, where complex light fields interact with tiny nanostructures in ways that can be really difficult to visualize, especially in real-time.
So, no wonder that artificial graphics often serve to illustrate a scientific concept or a certain device. And with the prevalence of advanced computer graphics programs such illustrations are becoming more and more fancy. In my opinion, this is a dangerous trend, because such graphics can distort the underlying science they try to depict. [...]
A coaxial cable plug. The coaxial nanolaser is more than 15,000 times smaller. Photo by mikemol via flickr.
When Oliver Heaviside invented the coaxial cable in 1880 he could not have foreseen the implications of his idea on modern nanotechnology. His coaxial cables consist of three layers: an inner metallic core, surrounded by an insulator, surrounded by a metallic layer on the outside. The benefit of this design is that the outer metallic layer shields the electrical signal through the cable from outside interference. This makes coaxial cables very useful for information transfer, and coax cables are used for TV antenna cables or some computer network cables. Mercedeh Khajavikhan, Yeshaiahu Fainman and colleagues from the University of California, San Diego now present a completely new application: they have fabricated coaxial lasers on the nanoscale that turn on without the usual minimum threshold power of usual lasers. To do this they had to shrink the coaxial cables first. These lasers are more than 15,000 times smaller than typical coaxial cables.
The nanoscale coaxial laser. Similar to coaxial cables it consists of an inner metal pillar and an outer metal shield. The structure is also protected from interference from the top. Inside is a semiconductor light emitter (red; insulated from the top metal through a SiO2 plug). The laser light exits through the hole in the substrate. Figure by Mercedeh Khajavikhan and Aleksandar Simic.
The benefit of a coaxial cable is that between the core and the outer metal layer well-defined and controlled electromagnetic waves can propagate shielded from any outside influence. Furthermore, shrinking such a device to the nanoscale – to length scales comparable to the light used – means that only the smallest optical beam pattern for the wavelength of light, known as the fundamental mode, fits into the small space between the metal structures. The other modes would be too large. [...]