Researchers at Stanford University are extending the capabilities of graphene by engineering piezoelectric capabilities into the material.
"The physical deformations we can create are directly proportional to the electrical field applied and this represents a fundamentally new way to control electronics at the nanoscale," says Evan Reed, head of the Materials Computation and Theory Group at Stanford and senior author of the study. "This phenomenon brings new dimension to the concept of 'straintronics' for the way the electrical field strains—or deforms—the lattice of carbon, causing it to change shape in predictable ways."
The concept of ‘straintronics’ in Graphene was demonstrated at least as far back as 2010 when Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory research, led by Michael Crommie, professor of physics at UC Berkeley and a faculty researcher at LBNL, serendipitously discovered that when graphene was grown on platinum a strain pattern was created.
It should be noted that the Stanford research, which was published in the journal ACS Nano, was conducted within modeling and simulation software. Nonetheless the researchers achieved their piezoelectric effect quite deliberately in the models by depositing lithium, hydrogen, potassium and fluorine atoms on one side of the graphene lattice. They expected this to generate a piezoelectric effect, but not on the scale they witnessed in the models.
“We thought the piezoelectric effect would be present, but relatively small. Yet, we were able to achieve piezoelectric levels comparable to traditional three-dimensional materials," said Reed. "It was pretty significant."
While the level of the piezoelectric effect was unexpected, the real breakthrough here may be that they were able to control the effect by depositing the atoms in specific locations within the graphene.
"We were further able to fine tune the effect by pattern doping the graphene—selectively placing atoms in specific sections and not others," said Mitchell Ong, a post-doctoral scholar in Reed's lab and first author of the paper. "We call it designer piezoelectricity because it allows us to strategically control where, when and how much the graphene is deformed by an applied electrical field with promising implications for engineering."
It should be interesting to see if anyone takes on these simulations and starts running physical experiments. If it can be duplicated in physical experiments, it could open the possibility for this kind of doping to be used on other nanomaterials that could open their use in a number of application areas, ranging from energy harvesting to chemical sensing and high-frequency acoustics.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.