Researchers at Tel Aviv University have engineered what is currently the single smallest and thinnest piece of technology ever seen, with a thickness of just two atoms. The new invention uses quantum-mechanical electron tunneling, which allows information to travel through the thin film, and is able to store electric information, making it potentially applicable to all sorts of electronic devices.
Moshe Ben Shalom, who was involved in the project, said the research started from the team’s curiosity about the behavior of atoms and electrons in solid materials, which has generated the technology used by many modern devices. They tried to “predict and control” the properties of these particles, he added in a statement.
“Our research stems from curiosity about the behavior of atoms and electrons in solid materials, which has generated many of the technologies supporting our modern way of life,” says Dr. Ben Shalom. “We (and many other scientists) try to understand, predict, and even control the fascinating properties of these particles as they condense into an ordered structure that we call a crystal. At the heart of the computer, for example, lies a tiny crystalline device designed to switch between two states indicating different responses — “yes” or “no,” “up” or “down” etc. Without this dichotomy — it is not possible to encode and process information. The practical challenge is to find a mechanism that would enable switching in a small, fast, and inexpensive device.
Modern devices have small crystals with a million atoms (one hundred atoms in height, width and thickness). This new development means that the crystals can be reduced to just two atoms thick, allowing the information to flow with greater speed and efficiency — which, if equal or comparable performance can be achieved, would make devices much more efficient.
For the study, the researchers used a two-dimensional material – one-atom-thick layers of boron and nitrogen, arranged in a repetitive hexagonal structure, drawing inspiration from graphene. They could break the symmetry of this crystal by artificially assembling two such layers “despite the strong repulsive force between them” due to their identical charges, Dr. Shalom explained.
“In its natural three-dimensional state, this material is made up of a large number of layers placed on top of each other, with each layer rotated 180 degrees relative to its neighbors (antiparallel configuration)” said Dr. Shalom in a statement. “In the lab, we were able to artificially stack the layers in a parallel configuration with no rotation.”
Maayan Wizner Stern, a PhD student who led the study, said the technology could have other applications beyond information storage, including detectors, energy storage and conversion and interaction with light. She hopes miniaturization and flipping through sliding will improve today’s electronic devices and allow new ways of controlling information in future devices.
The new technology proposes a way for storing electric information in the thinnest unit known to science, in one of the most stable and inert materials in nature, the researchers said. The quantum-mechanical electron tunneling through the atomically thin film could boost the information reading process far beyond current technologies.
Researchers also expect the same approach to work with multiple crystals, potentially offering even more desirable properties. Wizner Stern concludes:
“We expect the same behaviors in many layered crystals with the right symmetry properties. The concept of interlayer sliding as an original and efficient way to control advanced electronic devices is very promising, and we have named it Slide-Tronics.”
The study has been published in the journal Science.