Less is more: researchers find new properties in single atomic layer

Posted on Monday, May 11, 2015

The energy required to power the tools and technology used in our daily lives is often underestimated — a ten-minute Google search, for example, generates enough energy to boil a cup of water. The world is searching for ways to make our technology cleaner, smaller and greener.  Now, researchers at the University of Ottawa, the National Research Council Canada, University at Buffalo and the University of Crete have done just that. By studying a single atomic layer, isolated with tungsten disulfide — one of the most lubricious materials known to science — they have discovered that the properties of electrons in a single layer change drastically. This could lead to new everyday technologies that significantly reduce energy consumption.

The ability to engineer materials at the nano scale has made possible a revolution in information technology — today's smartphones, for example, have the capacity of yesterday's super computers. “The fact that we will now be able to make transistors and lasers with materials that are just one single atomic layer in thickness gives us a world of new possibilities. We can make technology smaller and more effective. What is thinner than a single atomic layer?” said Professor Pawel Hawrylak, University of Ottawa research chair in materials, nanostructures and devices.

By confining electrons to a single atomic layer that can act both as a transistor and as a laser, power consumption can be reduced. In the future, this may mean that computers will not only be extremely powerful, but also much smaller, and more importantly, greener.

Researchers made the discovery while studying a single atomic layer, realizing that the properties of electrons in the layer changed drastically: the layer became host to a new state of matter. This new property changed how the atomic layer interacted with light, making a natural conversion to one given circular polarization instead of a random polarization. This is useful for encryption, for example.

“This is one example of very large worldwide activity addressing societal problems,” says Professor Athos Petrou, UB-distinguished professor, University at Buffalo. “By purposely engineering the materials used in these technologies, we discover new phenomena which open new perspectives and possibilities not found in the natural world.”

You can find the researchers' paper in Nature Nanotechnology.

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