Semiconductors, metals and insulators must be integrated to make the transistors that are the electronic building blocks of your smartphone, computer and other microchip-enabled devices. Today’s transistors are miniscule—a mere 10 nanometers wide—and formed from three-dimensional (3D) crystals.

But a disruptive new technology looms that uses two-dimensional (2D) crystals, just 1 nanometer thick, to enable ultrathin electronics. Scientists worldwide are investigating 2D crystals made from common layered materials to constrain electron transport within just two dimensions. Researchers had previously found ways to lithographically pattern single layers of carbon atoms called graphene into ribbon-like “wires” complete with insulation provided by a similar layer of boron nitride. But until now they have lacked synthesis and processing methods to lithographically pattern junctions between two different semiconductors within a single nanometer-thick layer to form transistors, the building blocks of ultrathin electronic devices.

Now for the first time, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have combined a novel synthesis process with commercial electron-beam lithography techniques to produce arrays of semiconductor junctions in arbitrary patterns within a single, nanometer-thick semiconductor crystal. The process relies upon transforming patterned regions of one existing, single-layer crystal into another. The researchers first grew single, nanometer-thick layers of molybdenum diselenide crystals on substrates and then deposited protective patterns of silicon oxide using standard lithography techniques. Then they bombarded the exposed regions of the crystals with a laser-generated beam of sulfur atoms. The sulfur atoms replaced the selenium atoms in the crystals to form molybdenum disulfide, which has a nearly identical crystal structure. The two semiconductor crystals formed sharp junctions, the desired building blocks of electronics. Nature Communications reports the accomplishment.

It is important that by controlling the ratio of sulfur to selenium within the crystal, the researchers can tune the bandgap of the semiconductors, an attribute that determines electronic and optical properties. To make optoelectronic devices such as electroluminescent displays, microchip fabricators integrate semiconductors with different bandgaps. For example, molybdenum disulfide’s bandgap is greater than molybdenum diselenide’s. Applying voltage to a crystal containing both semiconductors causes electrons and “holes” (positive charges created when electrons vacate) to move from molybdenum disulfide into molybdenum diselenide and recombine to emit light at the bandgap of molybdenum diselenide. For that reason, engineering the bandgaps of monolayer systems can allow the generation of light with many different colors, as well as enable other applications such as transistors and sensors, Mahjouri-Samani said.

Next the researchers will see if their pulsed laser vaporization and conversion method will work with atoms other than sulfur and selenium. “We’re trying to make more complex systems in a 2D plane—integrate more ingredients, put in different building blocks—because at the end of the day, a complete working device needs different semiconductors and metals and insulators,” Mahjouri-Samani said.

To understand the process of converting one nanometer-thick crystal into another, the researchers used powerful electron microscopy capabilities available at ORNL, notably atomic-resolution Z-contrast scanning transmission electron microscopy, which was developed at the lab and is now available to scientists worldwide using the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. Employing this technique, electron microscopists Andrew Lupini and visiting scientist Leonardo Basile imaged hexagonal networks of individual columns of atoms in the nanometer-thick molybdenum diselenide and molybdenum disulfide crystals.

This story is reprinted from material from ORNL, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.