The invention of the electron microscope 90 years ago enabled scientists for the first time to ‘see’ nature’s microscopic components on the nanoscale. Over time, scientists across many fields wanted not only to study nature’s smallest components, but also to use them as building blocks. Nanotechnology’s ultimate dream is to be able to arrange the individual atoms, thereby creating materials with novel properties.
More unusual materials
“The amazing thing is that graphene is just one of several thousand two-dimensional materials that offer an incredibly wide range of properties covering everything you could possibly want,” says Peter Bøggild, professor at DTU Nanotech.
“The huge potential for these unusual materials is only really triggered when you start to combine them—something we are now able to do with atomic precision here at DTU.”
Peter Bøggild and his research group have namely developed a new method to layer atom-thin 2D materials without damaging the layers.
“It’s a bit like laminate flooring. When combined, the different components—foil and various wood layers—provide high tensile strength, easy maintenance, heat insulation, and a high degree of flexibility—all in a single product. We can now do the same thing at the atomic level,” says Peter Bøggild.
When you laminate the atom-thin layer, you can tailor the electrical, optical, and mechanical properties in a new way. However, layering the two-dimensional layers on top of each other without contamination—e.g. from undesirable particles, bubbles, and molecules in between the layers which can easily damage the properties—has proved challenging.
“So we decided to find a solution,” says Peter Bøggild. “Two of our PhD students visited the leading research group in the field at Columbia University in New York in order to learn how the group’s newly developed atom-layering method worked. During their stay, our PhD students not only learned the method, but added a range of crucial improvements—something we call ‘hot pickup,” he explains.
Temperature is crucial
The method consists of precisely controlling the temperature to vary the attraction between the ‘hand’ that picks and places the atom-thin layers and heating under ‘the laminate’ to eliminate impurities between the layers. The improved control means that you can build three-dimensional architectures, where the atom-thin layers are related not only horizontally, but vertically as well. Another advantage is that the method is relatively easy to master and produces predictable results. Peter Bøggild therefore expects more research groups to start building complex structures of atom-thin layers at a high international level.
“Solar cells, sensors, and light-emitting diodes featuring the two-dimensional supermaterials have already seen the light of day, but this is just the beginning. Given the almost infinite combinations in the building of structures with individual atom-thin layers, we are really only limited by our imagination. We are talking about 2,500 different substances that can now be combined freely without restrictions at the atomic level. From a material research perspective, this is an event with far-reaching implications,” concludes Peter Bøggild.
How to build materials in 2D