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World's thinnest nanowires may lead to foldable tablets, smartphones

Vanderbilt researcher creates nanowires only 3 atoms wide

April 29, 2014 03:56 PM ET

Computerworld - A researcher at Vanderbilt University has created a way to build nanowires just three atoms wide that should help scientists eventually create paper-thin, flexible tablets smartphones.

Junhao Lin, a Vanderbilt doctoral student and visiting scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, created a way to use a finely focused beam of electrons to build what university scientists believe are some of the smallest wires ever made. The tiny metallic wires are one-thousandth the width of the microscopic wires that are used today to connect the transistors in integrated computer circuits.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have created nanowires, shown in this video taken through an electron microscope, only three atoms wide. (Video: Vanderbilt University)

"It's at the cutting edge of everything," Sokrates Pantelides, Lin's adviser and the university's Distinguished Professor of Physics and Engineering, told Computerworld. "People have obviously made nanowires, but they often might be 50 or 100 nanometers across. We have nanotubes 1 nanometer across. These are 0.4 nanometers. I would expect them to be fragile but they're not at all. They are extremely robust."

Lin made the nanowires using semiconducting materials that naturally form monolayers, which are layers one molecule thick, Pantelides said.

The materials, called transition-metal dichalcogenides, are made by combining the metals molybdenum or tungsten with either sulfur or selenium, according to the university. The best-known member of the family is molybdenum disulfide, a common mineral that is used as a solid lubricant.

Scientists have used transition-metal dichalcogenides to build an atomic-scale honeycomb lattice of atoms that has exhibited a number of important properties, like electricity, strength and heat conduction, Pantelides said.

Researchers have already created functioning transistors and flash memory gates out this material. By creating tiny nanowires out of this same material, the transistors and flash memory gates can be connected.

The new nanowires are not built as stand-alone wires. They are built into the honeycomb lattice, along with the transistors and gates. It's all built as one thin, flexible material, which could be used to build thin electronics, like smartphones and tablets.

"Looking to the future, we can create a flexible two-dimensional material," said Pantelides. "You could potentially have screens or pages that are flexible like a sheet of paper. You might be able to fold them and then open them up to see the screen. The material is flexible already because it's just one layer of atoms."

Scientists around the world are working on the thin, flexible material, Pantelides said. The tiny nanowires created at Vanderbilt are a key piece that has been missing in this scenario.

"This will likely stimulate a huge research interest in monolayer circuit design," Lin said in a statement.

covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter @sgaudin, on or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed Gaudin RSS. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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