Berkeley Lab scientists discover the edge states of graphene nanoribbons.
As far back as the 1990s, long before anyone had actually isolated graphene – a honeycomb lattice of carbon just one atom thick – theorists were predicting extraordinary properties at the edges of graphene nanoribbons. Now physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), and their colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and other institutions, have made the first precise measurements of the "edge states" of well-ordered nanoribbons.
A graphene nanoribbon is a strip of graphene that may be only a few nanometers wide (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). Theorists have envisioned that nanoribbons, depending on their width and the angle at which they are cut, would have unique electronic, magnetic, and optical features, including band gaps like those in semiconductors, which sheet graphene doesn't have.
"Until now no one has been able to test theoretical predictions regarding nanoribbon edge-states, because no one could figure out how to see the atomic-scale structure at the edge of a well-ordered graphene nanoribbon and how, at the same time, to measure its electronic properties within nanometers of the edge," says Michael Crommie of Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division (MSD) and UC Berkeley's Physics Division, who led the research. "We were able to achieve this by studying specially made nanoribbons with a scanning tunneling microscope."
For nanoribbons with an armchair edge, the diffraction pattern spans the full width of the nanoribbon; the resulting electron states are quantized in energy and extend spatially throughout the entire nanoribbon. For nanoribbons with a zigzag edge, however, the situation is different. Here diffraction from edge atoms leads to destructive interference, causing the electron states to localize near the nanoribbon edges. Their amplitude is greatly reduced in the interior.
The energy of the electron, the width of the nanoribbon, and the chirality of its edges all naturally affect the nature and strength of these nanoribbon electronic states, an indication of the many ways the electronic properties of nanoribbons can be tuned and modified.
Says Crommie, "The optimist says, 'Wow, look at all the ways we can control these states – this might allow a whole new technology!' The pessimist says, 'Uh-oh, look at all the things that can disturb a nanoribbon's behavior – how are we ever going to achieve reproducibility on the atomic scale?'"
Crommie himself declares that "meeting this challenge is a big reason for why we do research. Nanoribbons have the potential to form exciting new electronic, magnetic, and optical devices at the nanoscale. We might imagine photovoltaic applications, where absorbed light leads to useful charge separation at nanoribbon edges. We might also imagine spintronics applications, where using a side-gate geometry would allow control of the spin polarization of electrons at a nanoribbon's edge."
Although getting there won't be simple -- "The edges have to be controlled," Crommie emphasizes -- "what we've shown is that it's possible to make nanoribbons with good edges and that they do, indeed, have characteristic edge states similar to what theorists had expected. This opens a whole new area of future research involving the control and characterization of graphene edges in different nanoscale geometries."
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world's most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab's scientific expertise has been recognized with 12 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. For more, visit www.lbl.gov.
Contact: Paul Preuss email@example.com 510-486-6249 DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory