The nanoscale electronic components in devices like smartphones are static, solid objects that once were designed and manufactured cannot be turned into anything else. But University of California, Irvine physicists have reported discovering nanoscale devices that can change into various shapes and sizes even though they exist in the solid state.
It is a finding that could fundamentally change the nature of electronic devices, as well as the way scientists study quantum materials at the atomic scale. This study was published recently in Science Advances.
“What we found is that for a given set of materials, you can create nanoscale electronic devices that don’t stick together,” said Javier Sanchez-Yamagishi, assistant professor of physics & astronomy whose lab carried out the new research. “The parts are movable, allowing us to modify the size and shape of the device after it has been built.”
Electronic devices can be modified like fridge door magnets – they stick but can be reconfigured into any pattern you like.
“The significance of this research is that it demonstrates new properties that can be employed in these materials that allow fundamentally different types of device architectures to be realized, including the mechanical reconfiguration of circuit sections,” said Ian Sequeira, a Ph.D student in the Sanchez-Yamagishi lab.
If that sounds like science fiction, says Sanchez-Yamagishi, that’s because until now scientists didn’t think anything like that was possible.
Indeed, Sanchez-Yamagishi and his team, which also includes UCI Ph.D. students Andrew Barabbas, did not even look for what they eventually found.
“Obviously that’s not what we originally wanted to do,” said Sanchez-Yamagishi.We wish everything was static, but what happened is we were trying to measure it, and we accidentally bumped into the device, and we saw it move.”
What they saw in particular was that tiny, nanoscale gold wires could slide with very low friction over special crystals called “van der Waals materials”.
Taking advantage of this slippery interface, they created an electronic device made of sheets of a one-atom-thick substance called graphene attached to gold wires that could be changed into a variety of different configurations on the fly.
Because it conducts electricity so well, gold is a common part of electronic components.
But how the discovery might impact the industry that uses such devices remains unclear.
“The early story was more about that basic science, even though it’s an idea that could one day impact the industry,” said Sanchez-Yamagishi. “It fosters the idea of it.”
Meanwhile, the team hopes their work can usher in a new era of quantum science research.
“This could fundamentally change the way people do research in this area,” said Sanchez-Yamagishi.
“Researchers dream of having flexibility and control in their experiments, but there are many limitations when dealing with nanoscale materials,” he added. “Our results show that what was once considered fixed and static can be made flexible and dynamic.”
Other UCI co-authors include Yuhui Yang, senior scholar at UCI, and postdoctoral scholar Aaron Barajas-Aguilar.