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A team led by the University of Washington have found that, by stacking a sheet of graphene onto bulk graphite at a small spin angle (above), the properties
A University of Washington-led team has found that, by stacking a sheet of graphene onto bulk graphite at small spin angles (top), the “exotic” properties present at the graphene-graphite interface (yellow) can seep into the graphite itself. CREDIT Ellis Thompson

Abstract:
For decades, scientists have investigated the potential of two-dimensional materials to transform our world. 2D materials are only one atomic layer thick. In them, subatomic particles such as electrons can only move in two dimensions. This simple restriction can trigger unusual electron behavior, giving materials with “exotic” properties such as strange magnetic shapes, superconductivity, and other collective behaviors between electrons — all of which can be useful in computing, communications, energy, and other fields.

Researchers put a new twist on graphite

Seattle, W.A. | Posted on July 21, 2023

But researchers generally assumed that this exotic 2D property existed only in single-ply sheets, or short stacks. The so-called “bulk” versions of these materials – with more complex 3D atomic structures – should behave differently.

Or so they thought.

In a paper published July 19 in Nature, a team led by researchers at the University of Washington report that it’s possible to imbue graphite — the bulk 3D material found in the No. 1 pencil. 2 – with physical properties similar to its 2D graphite counterpart, graphene. Not only was this breakthrough unexpected, the team believes the approach could be used to test whether similar types of bulk materials can also have 2D-like properties. If so, 2D sheets won’t be the only source for scientists to fuel a technological revolution. Bulk, 3D materials can be just as useful.

“Laying one layer on one layer — or two layers on two layers — has been the focus of unlocking new physics in 2D materials for several years now. In this experimental approach, that is where a lot of interesting properties emerge,” said senior author Matthew Yankowitz, UW assistant professor of physics and materials science and engineering. “But what happens if you keep adding layers? Gotta stop eventually, right? That’s what intuition suggests. But in this case, intuition is wrong. It’s possible to incorporate 2D properties into 3D materials.”

The team, which also includes researchers at Osaka University and the National Institute of Materials Science in Japan, adapted an approach commonly used to investigate and manipulate the properties of 2D materials: stacking 2D sheets together at small twist angles. Yankowitz and his colleagues placed a single layer of graphene on top of the thin graphite crystals, and then introduced a torsion angle of about 1 degree between the graphite and graphene. They detected new and unexpected electrical properties not only at the twisted interface, but deep within the graphite bulk as well.

Torsion angle is critical to producing this property, said Yankowitz, who is also a faculty member at the UW Institute of Clean Energy and the UW Institute of Nano Engineering Systems. Angles of twist between 2D sheets, such as two sheets of graphene, create what are called moiré patterns, which alter the flow of charged particles such as electrons and induce exotic properties in materials.

In UW-led experiments with graphite and graphene, the twist angle also induces a moiré pattern, with surprising results. Even though only a single sheet of graphene above the bulk crystals was twisted, the researchers found that the electrical properties of the entire material were very different from those of typical graphite. And when they turned on the magnetic field, electrons deep within the graphite crystals adopted unusual properties similar to electrons at a twisted interface. Basically, the single bent graphite-graphite interface becomes intermingled with other bulk graphite.

“Even though we generated the moiré pattern only on the graphite surface, the resulting properties bleed throughout the crystal,” said co-lead author Dacen Waters, a UW postdoctoral physics researcher.

For 2D sheets, moiré patterns yield properties that can be useful for quantum computing and other applications. Inducing similar phenomena in 3D matter opens up new approaches to studying unusual and exotic states of matter and how to bring them out of the laboratory and into our everyday lives.

“The whole crystal takes on this 2D state,” said lead co-author Ellis Thompson, a UW physics doctoral student. “This is a fundamentally new way to influence the behavior of electrons in bulk materials.”

Yankowitz and his team believe their approach to generating torsional angles between graphene and bulk graphite crystals can be used to create 2D-3D hybrids from sister materials, including tungsten ditelluride and zirconium pentatelluride. This could open up a new approach to reengineering the properties of conventional bulk materials using a single 2D interface.

“This method can be a very rich playground for studying exciting new physical phenomena in materials with mixed 2D and 3D properties,” said Yankowitz.

The co-authors on the paper are UW graduate student Esmeralda Arreguin-Martinez and UW postdoctoral researcher Yafei Ren, both in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Ting Cao, UW assistant professor of materials science and engineering; Di Xiao, a UW professor of physics and chair of materials science and engineering; Manato Fujimoto of Osaka University; and Kenji Watanabe and Takashi Taniguchi of the National Institute of Materials Science in Japan. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation; US Department of Energy; UW Clean Energy Institute; Office of the Director of State Intelligence; Japan Science and Technology Agency; Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science; Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan; and the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust.

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For more information, contact Yankowitz at

Grant number:

National Science Foundation: DMR-2041972, MRSEC-1719797, DGE-2140004
US Department of Energy: DE-SC0019443
Japan Science and Technology Agency: JPMJCR20T3
Japan Society for the Promotion of Science: JP21J10775, JP23KJ0339, 19H05790, 20H00354 and 21H05233
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan: JPMXP0112101001

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James Urton
Washington University

Office: 206-543-2580
Expert Contact

Matthew Yankowitz
Washington University

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