David Kirkpatrick

August 11, 2010

Better understanding graphene

Yes, graphene is something of a miracle material (hit this link for my extensive graphene blogging), and yes it’s proving to be very vexing material as well. There’s a whole lot of promise, but not so much practice because graphene is proving to be a very fickle material. Research like this from the Georgia Institute of Technology is particularly important because unlocking the secret life of graphene will allow for increasing practical applications. Better understanding will lead to better utilization.

The release:

Study of electron orbits in multilayer graphene finds unexpected energy gaps

Electron transport

IMAGE: Stacking of graphene sheets creates regions where the moiré alignment is of type AA (all atoms have neighbors in the layer below), AB (only A atoms have neighbors) or BA…

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Researchers have taken one more step toward understanding the unique and often unexpected properties of graphene, a two-dimensional carbon material that has attracted interest because of its potential applications in future generations of electronic devices.

In the Aug. 8 advance online edition of the journal Nature Physics, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) describe for the first time how the orbits of electrons are distributed spatially by magnetic fields applied to layers of epitaxial graphene.

The research team also found that these electron orbits can interact with the substrate on which the graphene is grown, creating energy gaps that affect how electron waves move through the multilayer material. These energy gaps could have implications for the designers of certain graphene-based electronic devices.

“The regular pattern of energy gaps in the graphene surface creates regions where electron transport is not allowed,” said Phillip N. First, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Physics and one of the paper’s co-authors. “Electron waves would have to go around these regions, requiring new patterns of electron wave interference. Understanding such interference will be important for bi-layer graphene devices that have been proposed, and may be important for other lattice-matched substrates used to support graphene and graphene devices.”

In a magnetic field, an electron moves in a circular trajectory – known as a cyclotron orbit – whose radius depends on the size of the magnetic field and the energy of electron. For a constant magnetic field, that’s a little like rolling a marble around in a large bowl, First said.

“At high energy, the marble orbits high in the bowl, while for lower energies, the orbit size is smaller and lower in the bowl,” he explained. “The cyclotron orbits in graphene also depend on the electron energy and the local electron potential – corresponding to the bowl – but until now, the orbits hadn’t been imaged directly.”

Placed in a magnetic field, these orbits normally drift along lines of nearly constant electric potential. But when a graphene sample has small fluctuations in the potential, these “drift states” can become trapped at a hill or valley in the material that has closed constant potential contours. Such trapping of charge carriers is important for the quantum Hall effect, in which precisely quantized resistance results from charge conduction solely through the orbits that skip along the edges of the material.

IMAGE: This graphic shows electrons that move along an equipotential, while those that follow closed equipotentials (as in a potential-energy valley) become localized (right). The arrows denote the magnetic field,…

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The study focused on one particular electron orbit: a zero-energy orbit that is unique to graphene. Because electrons are matter waves, interference within a material affects how their energy relates to the velocity of the wave – and reflected waves added to an incoming wave can combine to produce a slower composite wave. Electrons moving through the unique “chicken-wire” arrangement of carbon-carbon bonds in the graphene interfere in a way that leaves the wave velocity the same for all energy levels.

In addition to finding that energy states follow contours of constant electric potential, the researchers discovered specific areas on the graphene surface where the orbital energy of the electrons changes from one atom to the next. That creates an energy gap within isolated patches on the surface.

“By examining their distribution over the surface for different magnetic fields, we determined that the energy gap is due to a subtle interaction with the substrate, which consists of multilayer graphene grown on a silicon carbide wafer,” First explained.

In multilayer epitaxial graphene, each layer’s symmetrical sublattice is rotated slightly with respect to the next. In prior studies, researchers found that the rotations served to decouple the electronic properties of each graphene layer.

“Our findings hold the first indications of a small position-dependent interaction between the layers,” said David L. Miller, the paper’s first author and a graduate student in First’s laboratory. “This interaction occurs only when the size of a cyclotron orbit – which shrinks as the magnetic field is increased – becomes smaller than the size of the observed patches.”

The origin of the position dependent interaction is believed to be the “moiré pattern” of atomic alignments between two adjacent layers of graphene. In some regions, atoms of one layer lie atop atoms of the layer below, while in other regions, none of the atoms align with the atoms in the layer below. In still other regions, half of the atoms have neighbors in the underlayer, an instance in which the symmetry of the carbon atoms is broken and the Landau level – discrete energy level of the electrons – splits into two different energies.

Experimentally, the researchers examined a sample of epitaxial graphene grown at Georgia Tech in the laboratory of Professor Walt de Heer, using techniques developed by his research team over the past several years.

They used the tip of a custom-built scanning-tunneling microscope (STM) to probe the atomic-scale electronic structure of the graphene in a technique known as scanning tunneling spectroscopy. The tip was moved across the surface of a 100-square nanometer section of graphene, and spectroscopic data was acquired every 0.4 nanometers.

The measurements were done at 4.3 degrees Kelvin to take advantage of the fact that energy resolution is proportional to the temperature. The scanning-tunneling microscope, designed and built by Joseph Stroscio at NIST’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, used a superconducting magnet to provide the magnetic fields needed to study the orbits.

According to First, the study raises a number of questions for future research, including how the energy gaps will affect electron transport properties, how the observed effects may impact proposed bi-layer graphene coherent devices – and whether the new phenomenon can be controlled.

“This study is really a stepping stone in long path to understanding the subtleties of graphene’s interesting properties,” he said. “This material is different from anything we have worked with before in electronics.”

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In addition to those already mentioned, the study also included Walt de Heer, Kevin D. Kubista, Ming Ruan, and Markus Kinderman from Georgia Tech and Gregory M. Rutter from NIST. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Semiconductor Research Corporation and the W.M. Keck Foundation. Additional assistance was provided by Georgia Tech’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC)

April 3, 2010

Plastic electronics may lower solar costs

Seems like a lot of news in solar cost reduction of late. In a related note, I’ve added a new link group to the sidebar — “Interesting blog topics” — and each link goes to a search for all my posts in that category. If you’re interested in solar news, that link is a great way to find everything I’ve covered in one spot.

From the link, the release:

PLASTIC ELECTRONICS COULD SLASH THE COST OF SOLAR PANELS

Posted Mar 30, 2010 By Chris Emery

A new technique developed by Princeton University engineers for producing electricity-conducting plastics could dramatically lower the cost of manufacturing solar panels.

By overcoming technical hurdles to producing plastics that are translucent, malleable and able to conduct electricity, the researchers have opened the door to broader use of the materials in a wide range of electrical devices.

With mounting concerns about global warming and energy demand, plastics could represent a low-cost alternative to indium tin oxide (ITO), an expensive conducting material currently used in solar panels, according to the researchers.

“Conductive polymers [plastics] have been around for a long time, but processing them to make something useful degraded their ability to conduct electricity,” said Yueh-Lin Loo, an associate professor of chemical engineering, who led the Princeton team. “We have figured out how to avoid this trade-off. We can shape the plastics into a useful form while maintaining high conductivity.”

A multi-institutional team reported on its new technique in a paper published online March 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The area of research, known as “organic electronics” because plastics are carbon-based like living creatures, holds promise for producing new types of electronic devices and new ways of manufacturing existing technologies, but has been hampered by the mysterious loss of conductivity associated with moldable plastics.

“People didn’t understand what was happening,” said Loo, who co-wrote the paper. “We discovered that in making the polymers moldable, their structures are trapped in a rigid form, which prevented electrical current from traveling through them.”

Once they understood the underlying problem, Loo and her colleagues developed a way to relax the structure of the plastics by treating them with an acid after they were processed into the desired form.

Plastic transistor

Princeton researchers have developed a new way to manufacture electronic devices made of plastic, employing a process that allows the materials to be formed into useful shapes while maintaining their ability to conduct electricity. In the plastic transistor pictured here, the plastic is molded into interdigitated electrodes (orange) allowing current flow to and from the active channel (green). (Image: Loo Research Group)

Using the method, they were able to make a plastic transistor, a fundamental component of electronics that is used to amplify and switch electronic signals. They produced the electrodes of the transistor by printing the plastic onto a surface, a fast and cheap method similar to the way an ink-jet printer produces a pattern on a piece of paper.

Loo said the technique potentially could be scaled up for mass production presses akin to those used to print newspapers. “Being able to essentially paint on electronics is a big deal,” Loo said. “You could distribute the plastics in cartridges the way printer ink is sold, and you wouldn’t need exotic machines to print the patterns.”

By allowing plastic solar cells to be manufactured using low-cost printing techniques and by replacing ITO as the primary conducting material, the plastics the team developed hold potential for lowering the cost of solar panels.

Currently, the electricity generated by plastic solar cells is collected by a transparent metal conductor made of ITO. The conductor must be transparent so that sunlight can pass through it to the materials in solar cells that absorb the light energy.

A rare and pricey byproduct of mining, ITO had come under increasing demand for use in flat-screen televisions, mobile phones and other devices with display screens. “The cost of indium tin oxide is skyrocketing,” Loo said. “To bring down the costs of plastic solar cells, we need to find a replacement for ITO. Our conducting plastics allow sunlight to pass through them, making them a viable alternative.”

The researchers anticipate that the plastics also could replace expensive metals used in other electronic devices, such as flexible displays. In addition, the scientists are beginning to explore the use of the plastics in biomedical sensors that would display a certain color if a person had an infection. For instance, the plastics turn from yellow to green when exposed to nitric oxide, a chemical compound produced during ear infections in children.

If the devices could be produced at a low cost, they might be useful in developing countries that lack advanced medical facilities. “You wouldn’t need any fancy machines or lab equipment to diagnose an infection,” Loo said, “all you would need is your eyes to see the color change in the plastics.”

The co-authors of the paper were Joung Eun Yoo, who received her doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Texas-Austin in 2009 with Loo as her adviser; Kimberly Baldwin, a high school student who spent a summer in Loo’s lab; Jacob Tarver, a Princeton chemical engineering graduate student; Enrique Gomez of Pennsylvania State University; Kwang Seok Lee and Yangming Sun of the University of Texas-Austin; Andres Garcia and Thuc-Quyen Nguyen of the University of California-Santa Barbara; and Hong Meng of DuPont Central Research and Development.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the W.M. Keck Foundation and the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.