What Are 2D Materials and Why Are So Many Engineers Excited About Them?
5 Questions with Deji Akinwande
There has been a lot of talk lately about 2D materials. What are they and what makes them different from conventional 3D materials?
2D materials are a special class of crystalline solids that are unique in the sense that they can be broken down to a single atomic layer. Think about it like taking a single playing card from an entire deck. In this case, however, we are talking about a single card that is many times thinner than a strand of hair. This simply isn’t possible in bulk conventional 3D materials like silicon, aluminum or diamond. Not only do 2D single-atomic sheets enable performance benefits for existing applications, but they also allow for entirely new platforms in flexible technology, electronics, wearable devices and more.
How can 2D materials be used in a real-world setting?
Many applications and uses are currently under investigation in academic and commercial labs. There are already prototypes for electronic chips, lasers and photodetectors, transparent conductors, energy storage and conversion devices, and a wide variety of sensors from mechanical to biological devices. Some of these prototypes are now maturing and available as commercial products.
You recently helped develop the world’s thinnest non-volatile memory device using 2D materials. Could you explain what “non-volatile” means in this context?
Non-volatile means that the memory device does not require any energy to maintain the information state. For instance, a picture saved in a non-volatile memory device inside your phone can be stored for an indefinite period of time without using any of the phone’s power.
To create your most recent 2D material, you used a substance known as monolayer hexagonal boron nitride, or h-BN. Why did you use this? What are its benefits?
It is the thinnest insulator on Earth. For this reason, we decided to explore the possibility of using it as a memory material. It’s about 10 times thinner than the thinnest metal oxides that are commonly used as memory materials. And, after experimentation, we were delighted to learn that h-BN showed successful memory operation. Hence, it now holds the world record as the thinnest known memory material.
What does the future hold for 2D materials? How do you see this research developing one year, five years or 15 years down the road?
The future is bright! Especially when looking towards the medium (>5 years) to long-term (>10 years) prospects. The main catalysts that will enable the practical application of 2D materials in a variety of ways are more consistent and reproducible manufacturing techniques at the material level, and low-cost integration at the system level. To this end, sustaining academic-industry collaboration is essential to translating academic results into industrial products.
Deji Akinwande is an inventor and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on materials and electrical systems based on 2D atomic layers. He is a recipient of both the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) and the IEEE Nanotechnology Early Career Award.