Re­searchers dis­cover new ma­te­rial to help power elec­tron­ics

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Elec­tron­ics

A re­search team at The Ohio State Univer­sity has dis­cov­ered a way to sim­plify how elec­tronic de­vices use those elec­trons -- us­ing a ma­te­rial that can serve dual roles in elec­tron­ics, where his­tor­i­cally mul­ti­ple ma­te­ri­als have been nec­es­sary.

The team pub­lished its find­ings March 18 in the jour­nal Na­ture Ma­te­ri­als.

"We have es­sen­tially found a dual-per­son­al­ity ma­te­rial," said Joseph Here­mans, co-au­thor of the study, pro­fes­sor of me­chan­i­cal and aero­space engi­neer­ing and Ohio Em­i­nent Scholar in Nan­otech­nol­ogy at Ohio State. "It is a con­cept that did not ex­ist be­fore."

Their find­ings could mean a re­vamp of the way en­gi­neers cre­ate all dif­fer­ent kinds of elec­tronic de­vices. This in­cludes ev­ery­thing from so­lar cells, to the light-emit­ting diodes in your tele­vi­sion, to the tran­sis­tors in your lap­top, and to the light sen­sors in your smart­phone cam­era.

Those de­vices are the build­ing blocks of elec­tric­ity: Each elec­tron has a neg­a­tive charge and can ra­di­ate or ab­sorb en­ergy de­pend­ing on how it is manipulated. Holes -- es­sen­tially, the ab­sence of an elec­tron -- have a pos­i­tive charge. Elec­tronic de­vices work by mov­ing elec­trons and holes -- es­sen­tially con­duct­ing elec­tric­ity.

But his­tor­i­cally, each part of the elec­tronic de­vice could only act as elec­tron-holder or a hole-holder, not both. That meant that elec­tron­ics needed mul­ti­ple lay­ers -- and mul­ti­ple ma­te­ri­als -- to per­form.

But the Ohio State re­searchers found a ma­te­rial -NaSn2As2, a crys­tal that can be both elec­tron-holder and hole-holder -- po­ten­tially elim­i­nat­ing the need for mul­ti­ple lay­ers.

"It is this dogma in sci­ence, that you have elec­trons

rule our world, but elec­trons rule our elec­tron­ics. or you have holes, but you don't have both. But our find­ings flip that up­side down," said Wolf­gang Windl, a pro­fes­sor of ma­te­ri­als sci­ence and engi­neer­ing at Ohio State, and co-au­thor of the study. "And it's not that an elec­tron be­comes a hole, be­cause it's the same as­sem­bly of par­ti­cles. Here, if you look at the ma­te­rial one way, it looks like an elec­tron, but if you look an­other way, it looks like a hole."

The find­ing could sim­plify our elec­tron­ics, per­haps cre­at­ing more ef­fi­cient sys­tems that op­er­ate more quickly and break down less of­ten.

Think of it like a Rube Gold­berg ma­chine, or the 1960s board game Mouse Trap: the more pieces at play and the more mov­ing parts, the less ef­fi­ciently en­ergy trav­els through­out the sys­tem -- and the more likely some­thing is to fail.

"Now, we have this new fam­ily of lay­ered crys­tals where the car­ri­ers be­have like elec­trons when trav­el­ing within each layer, and holes when trav­el­ing through the lay­ers . ... You can imag­ine there might be some unique elec­tronic de­vices you could cre­ate," said Joshua Gold­berger, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of chem­istry and bio­chem­istry at Ohio State.

The re­searchers named this dual-abil­ity phe­nom­e­non "go­niopo­lar­ity." They be­lieve the ma­te­rial func­tions this way be­cause of its unique elec­tronic struc­ture, and say it is prob­a­ble that other lay­ered ma­te­ri­als could ex­hibit this prop­erty.

"We just haven't found them yet," Here­mans said. "But now we know to search for them."

The re­searchers made the dis­cov­ery al­most by ac­ci­dent. A grad­u­ate stu­dent re­searcher in Here­mans' lab, Bin He, was mea­sur­ing the prop­er­ties of the crys­tal when he no­ticed that the ma­te­rial be­haved some­times like an elec­tron-holder and some­times like a hole-holder

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