Tag Archives: Nuh Gedik

Better performing solar cells with newly discovered property of pristine graphene

Light-harvesting devices—I like that better than solar cells or the like but I think that the term serves as a category rather than a name/label for a specific device. Enough musing. A December 17, 2018 news item on Nanowerk describes the latest about graphene and light-harvesting devices (Note: A link has been removed,

An international research team, co-led by a physicist at the University of California, Riverside, has discovered a new mechanism for ultra-efficient charge and energy flow in graphene, opening up opportunities for developing new types of light-harvesting devices.

The researchers fabricated pristine graphene — graphene with no impurities — into different geometric shapes, connecting narrow ribbons and crosses to wide open rectangular regions. They found that when light illuminated constricted areas, such as the region where a narrow ribbon connected two wide regions, they detected a large light-induced current, or photocurrent.

The finding that pristine graphene can very efficiently convert light into electricity could lead to the development of efficient and ultrafast photodetectors — and potentially more efficient solar panels.

A December 14, 2018 University of California at Riverside (UCR) news release by Iqbal Pittalwala (also on EurekAlert but published Dec. 17, 2018), which originated the news item,gives a brief description of graphene while adding context for this research,

Graphene, a 1-atom thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, has many desirable material properties, such as high current-carrying capacity and thermal conductivity. In principle, graphene can absorb light at any frequency, making it ideal material for infrared and other types of photodetection, with wide applications in bio-sensing, imaging, and night vision.

In most solar energy harvesting devices, a photocurrent arises only in the presence of a junction between two dissimilar materials, such as “p-n” junctions, the boundary between two types of semiconductor materials. The electrical current is generated in the junction region and moves through the distinct regions of the two materials.

“But in graphene, everything changes,” said Nathaniel Gabor, an associate professor of physics at UCR, who co-led the research project. “We found that photocurrents may arise in pristine graphene under a special condition in which the entire sheet of graphene is completely free of excess electronic charge. Generating the photocurrent requires no special junctions and can instead be controlled, surprisingly, by simply cutting and shaping the graphene sheet into unusual configurations, from ladder-like linear arrays of contacts, to narrowly constricted rectangles, to tapered and terraced edges.”

Pristine graphene is completely charge neutral, meaning there is no excess electronic charge in the material. When wired into a device, however, an electronic charge can be introduced by applying a voltage to a nearby metal. This voltage can induce positive charge, negative charge, or perfectly balance negative and positive charges so the graphene sheet is perfectly charge neutral.

“The light-harvesting device we fabricated is only as thick as a single atom,” Gabor said. “We could use it to engineer devices that are semi-transparent. These could be embedded in unusual environments, such as windows, or they could be combined with other more conventional light-harvesting devices to harvest excess energy that is usually not absorbed. Depending on how the edges are cut to shape, the device can give extraordinarily different signals.”

The research team reports this first observation of an entirely new physical mechanism — a photocurrent generated in charge-neutral graphene with no need for p-n junctions — in Nature Nanotechnology today [Dec. 17, 2018].

Previous work by the Gabor lab showed a photocurrent in graphene results from highly excited “hot” charge carriers. When light hits graphene, high-energy electrons relax to form a population of many relatively cooler electrons, Gabor explained, which are subsequently collected as current. Even though graphene is not a semiconductor, this light-induced hot electron population can be used to generate very large currents.

“All of this behavior is due to graphene’s unique electronic structure,” he said. “In this ‘wonder material,’ light energy is efficiently converted into electronic energy, which can subsequently be transported within the material over remarkably long distances.”

He explained that, about a decade ago, pristine graphene was predicted to exhibit very unusual electronic behavior: electrons should behave like a liquid, allowing energy to be transferred through the electronic medium rather than by moving charges around physically.
“But despite this prediction, no photocurrent measurements had been done on pristine graphene devices — until now,” he said.

The new work on pristine graphene shows electronic energy travels great distances in the absence of excess electronic charge.

The research team has found evidence that the new mechanism results in a greatly enhanced photoresponse in the infrared regime with an ultrafast operation speed.
“We plan to further study this effect in a broad range of infrared and other frequencies, and measure its response speed,” said first author Qiong Ma, a postdoctoral associate in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT.

The researchers have provided an image illustrating their work,

Caption: Shining light on graphene: Although graphene has been studied vigorously for more than a decade, new measurements on high-performance graphene devices have revealed yet another unusual property. In ultra-clean graphene sheets, energy can flow over great distances, giving rise to an unprecedented response to light. Credit: Max Grossnickle and QMO Labs, UC Riverside.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Giant intrinsic photoresponse in pristine graphene by Qiong Ma, Chun Hung Lui, Justin C. W. Song, Yuxuan Lin, Jian Feng Kong, Yuan Cao, Thao H. Dinh, Nityan L. Nair, Wenjing Fang, Kenji Watanabe, Takashi Taniguchi, Su-Yang Xu, Jing Kong, Tomás Palacios, Nuh Gedik, Nathaniel M. Gabor, & Pablo Jarillo-Herrero. Nature Nanotechnology (2018) Published 17 December 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-018-0323-8

This paper is behind a paywall.

Adventures in time, mass, and topological insulators

Nano at a billionth (of a second, or a metre, or some other measure) is not the smallest unit of measurement, despite how we often talk about nano ‘anything’. But, as we continue to explore matter at ever more subtle levels, we need ever smaller units of measure and there are some ready for use.

I have a few excerpts from a Sept. 18, 2012  article (Explained: Femtoseconds and attoseconds) by David Chandler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) describing some of these smaller units of measure and how they were devised,

Back in the first half of the 20th century, when MIT’s famed Harold “Doc” Edgerton was perfecting his system for capturing fast-moving events on film, the ability to observe changes unfolding at a scale of microseconds — millionths of a second — was considered a remarkable achievement. This led to now-famous images such as one of a bullet piercing an apple, captured in midflight.

Nowadays, microsecond-resolution imagery is almost ho-hum. The cutting edge of research passed through nanoseconds (billionths of a second) and picoseconds (trillionths) in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, researchers can easily reach into the realm of femtoseconds — quadrillionths (or millionths of a billionth) of a second, the timescale of motions within molecules.

Femtosecond laser research led to the development, in 2000, of a system that revolutionized the measurement of optical frequencies and enabled optical clocks. Continuing the progress, today’s top-shelf technologies are beginning to make it possible to observe events that last less than 100 attoseconds, or quintillionths of a second.

Those prefixes — micro, nano, pico, femto and atto — are part of an internationally agreed-upon system called SI units (from the French Système International d’Unités, or International System of Units). The system was officially adopted in 1960, and has been updated periodically, most recently in 1991. It encompasses a total of 20 prefixes, 10 of them for decimal amounts, and 10 more for large multiples of the basic units (mega, giga, tera and so on).

As Chandler points out in more detail than I have, there’s a reason for developing these units of measure,

The ability to observe events on such timescales is important for basic physics — to understand how atoms move within molecules — as well as for engineering semiconductor devices, and for understanding basic biological processes at the molecular level.

But physicists and engineers are interested in pushing these limits ever further. To understand the movements of electrons, and eventually those of subatomic particles, requires attaining the attosecond and ultimately zeptosecond (sextillionths of a second) range, Kaertner says. Achieving that requires pushing technology to produce pulses using higher-wavelength sources, and also producing pulses that encompass a wider range of frequencies — a more broadband source.

I finally managed to conceptualize the nanoscale a few years ago but it appears I have more work to do. Chandler offers some suggestions for imagining the femtoscale,

So, just how short is a femtosecond? One way to think of it, Kaertner [Franz Kaertner, MIT adjunct professor of electrical engineering] says, is in terms of how far light can move in a given amount of time. Light travels about 300,000 kilometers (or 186,000 miles) in one second. That means it goes about 30 centimeters — about one foot — in one nanosecond. In one femtosecond, light travels just 300 nanometers — about the size of the biggest particle that can pass through a HEPA filter, and just slightly larger than the smallest bacteria.

Another way of thinking about the length of a femtosecond is this: One femtosecond is to one second as one second is to about 32 million years.

Chandler discuses in another MIT article (Watching electrons move at high speed) also posted on Sept. 18, 2012, a new electronic material, a topological insulator, and the importance of viewing the behaviour of electrons present in such an insulator,

Topological insulators are exotic materials, discovered just a few years ago, that hold great promise for new kinds of electronic devices. The unusual behavior of electrons within them has been very difficult to study, but new techniques developed by a team of researchers at MIT could help unlock the mysteries of exactly how electrons move and react in these materials, opening up new possibilities for harnessing them.

For the first time, the MIT team has managed to create three-dimensional “movies” of electron behavior in a topological insulator, or TI. [can be viewed here] The movies can capture vanishingly small increments of time — down to the level of a few femtoseconds, or millionths of a billionth of a second — so that they can catch the motions of electrons as they scatter in response to a very short pulse of light.

Electrons normally have mass, just like many other fundamental particles, but when moving along the surface of TIs they move as if they were massless, like light — one of the extraordinary characteristics that give these new materials such promise for new technologies. [emphases mine]

It’s the bit about mass and masslessness that caught my eye. Fascincating, non? Here’s a graphical representation of what the MIT scientists observed (I think it looks like a cup or a grail),

Three-dimensional graphical representations of the way electrons respond to an input of energy, delivered by a pulse of laser light. The horizontal axis represents the electrons’ momentum, and the vertical axis shows their energy. The time sequence runs from top left to bottom right, and the laser pulse arrives just before the second image, causing a sudden burst of higher energy levels. Images courtesy of Yihua Wang and Nuh Gedik [of MIT]

Here’s a bit more about TIs and possible future applications,

TIs are a class of materials with seemingly contradictory characteristics: The bulk of the material acts as an insulator, almost completely blocking any flow of electrons. But the surface of the material behaves as a very good conductor, like a metal, allowing electrons to travel freely. In fact, the surface is even more conductive than normal metals — allowing electrons to travel at almost the speed of light and to be unaffected by impurities in the material, which normally hinder their motion.

Because of these characteristics, TIs are seen as a promising new material for electronic circuits and data-storage devices. But developing such new devices requires a better understanding of exactly how electrons move around on and inside the TI, and how the surface electrons interact with those inside the material.

I highly recommend reading both of Chandler’s articles.