An illustration of the new reconfigurable device, with golden parts that are transformable. Image: Yuhui Yang/UCI.
An illustration of the new reconfigurable device, with golden parts that are transformable. Image: Yuhui Yang/UCI.

The nano-scale electronic parts in devices like smartphones are solid, static objects that once designed and built cannot transform into anything else. But physicists at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) have now come up with nano-scale devices that can transform into many different shapes and sizes even though they exist in solid states.

This development, reported in a paper in Science Advances, could fundamentally change the nature of electronic devices, as well as the way scientists research atomic-scale quantum materials.

“What we discovered is that for a particular set of materials, you can make nano-scale electronic devices that aren’t stuck together,” said Javier Sanchez-Yamagishi, an assistant professor of physics & astronomy at UCI, whose lab performed the new research. “The parts can move, and so that allows us to modify the size and shape of a device after it’s been made.”

The electronic devices are modifiable much like refrigerator door magnets – individual components are stuck on but can be reconfigured into any pattern you like.

“The significance of this research is that it demonstrates a new property that can be utilized in these materials that allows for fundamentally different types of device architectures to be realized, including mechanically reconfigure parts of a circuit,” said Ian Sequeira, a PhD student in Sanchez-Yamagishi’s lab.

If this sounds like science fiction, said Sanchez-Yamagishi, that’s because until now scientists did not think such a thing was possible. Indeed, Sanchez-Yamagishi and his team, which also includes UCI PhD student Andrew Barabas, weren’t actually looking for what they ultimately discovered.

“It was definitely not what we were initially setting out to do,” said Sanchez-Yamagishi. “We expected everything to be static, but what happened was we were in the middle of trying to measure it, and we accidentally bumped into the device, and we saw that it moved.”

What they saw specifically was that tiny nano-scale gold wires could slide with very low friction on top of special 2D crystals known as ‘van der Waals materials’. Taking advantage of these slippery interfaces, the physicists developed electronic devices made of single-atom thick sheets of the 2D material graphene attached to gold wires, which can be transformed into a variety of different configurations on the fly.

Because it conducts electricity so well, gold is a common part of electronic components. But exactly how this discovery could impact industries that use such devices is unclear.

“The initial story is more about the basic science of it, although it is an idea which could one day have an effect on industry,” said Sanchez-Yamagishi. “This germinates the idea of it.”

Meanwhile, the team expects that its work could usher in a new era of quantum science research.

“It could fundamentally change how people do research in this field,” Sanchez-Yamagishi said. “Researchers dream of having flexibility and control in their experiments, but there are a lot of restrictions when dealing with nanoscale materials. Our results show that what was once thought to be fixed and static can be made flexible and dynamic.”

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