An illustration showing the combination of C60, graphene and hBN in the new van der Waals solid.
An illustration showing the combination of C60, graphene and hBN in the new van der Waals solid.

A researcher at Queen’s University Belfast in the UK has led an international team of scientists to the discovery of a new material that could finally bring an end to the misery of cracked smartphone and tablet screens.

Currently, most parts of a smartphone are made of silicon and other compounds, which are expensive and break easily, but with almost 1.5 billion smartphones purchased worldwide last year, manufacturers are on the lookout for materials that are more durable and less costly.

Elton Santos from Queen’s University’s School of Mathematics and Physics has been working with a team of scientists from Stanford University, University of California and California State University in the US and the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan. Their aim is to create new dynamic hybrid devices that are able to conduct electricity at unprecedented speeds and are light, durable and easy to manufacture in large-scale semiconductor plants.

The has team found that by combining semiconducting molecules of C60, commonly known as buckyballs, with layered materials such as graphene and hexagonal boron nitride (hBN) they can produce a unique material that could revolutionize the concept of smart devices.

The winning combination works because hBN provides stability, electronic compatibility and isolation charge to graphene, while C60 can convert sunlight into electricity. Any smart device made from this combination would benefit from this unique mix of features, which do not exist in materials naturally. This process for fabricating these so-called van der Waals solids allows compounds to be brought together and assembled in a predefined way.

“Our findings show that this new ‘miracle material’ has similar physical properties to silicon but it has improved chemical stability, lightness and flexibility, which could potentially be used in smart devices and would be much less likely to break,” explains Elton Santos. “The material also could mean that devices use less energy than before because of the device architecture so could have improved battery life and less electric shocks.

“By bringing together scientists from across the globe with expertise in chemistry, physics and materials science we were able to work together and use simulations to predict how all of the materials could function when combined – and ultimately how these could work to help solve everyday problems. This cutting-edge research is timely and a hot-topic involving key players in the field, which opens a clear international pathway to put Queen’s on the road-map of further outstanding investigations.”

The project initially started with simulations predicting that an assembly of hBN, graphene and C60 could result in a solid with remarkable new physical and chemical properties. Following this, Santos talked with his collaborators Alex Zettl and Claudia Ojeda-Aristizabal at the University of California and California State University in Long Beach about the findings. There was a strong synergy between theory and experiments throughout the project.

“It is a sort of a ‘dream project’ for a theoretician since the accuracy achieved in the experiments remarkably matched what I predicted and this is not normally easy to find,” says Santos. “The model made several assumptions that have proven to be completely right.”

The findings, which have been published in a paper in ACS Nano, open the doors for further exploration of new materials. One issue that still needs to be solved is that graphene and the new material architecture lack a ‘band gap’, which is key to the on-off switching operations performed by electronic devices.

However, Santos’ team is already investigating a potential solution – transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDs). These nanomaterials are a hot topic at the moment, as they are very chemically stable, have large sources for production and band gaps that rival silicon.

“By using these findings, we have now produced a template but in future we hope to add an additional feature with TMDs,” says Santos. “These are semiconductors, which bypass the problem of the band gap, so we now have a real transistor on the horizon.”

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