The breakthrough paves the way for an “etch-a-sketch of nanoscale electrical connections.”
At the core of almost all the technologies you use on a daily basis are the electrical circuits that schlep electrons from point A to point B to deliver power to the device. These circuits need to be pretty small in order to fit in modern smartphones and computers, and are generally designed and manufactured to carry out a specific function.
But according to a team of physicists at Queen's University Belfast, the consumer and medical technologies of tomorrow will demand smaller, dynamic electrical circuits that would be impossible to create with current means. So in an effort to solve this dilemma, the researchers created an extremely thin electrically conducting sheet called a domain wall that is embedded within crystalline structures. The scientists are able to alter the domain wall, and the shape of the electrical circuit, without changing the structure of the crystal itself.
"The tiniest devices are now composed of just a few atoms," Marty Gregg, a physicist at Queen's University, said. "As things currently stand, it will become impossible to make these devices any smaller—we will simply run out of space. One solution is to make electronic circuits more 'flexible' so that they can exist at one moment for one purpose, but can be completely reconfigured the next moment for another purpose."
In other words, rather than trying to make smaller electrical circuits, Gregg and his colleagues focused on creating electrical circuits that could be drawn and redrawn in order to respond to the changing needs of the user—kind of like an electrical circuit Etch-a-Sketch.
The domain walls made by the Queen's University team are almost only a few atoms thick. This makes them almost as thin as graphene, the wonder material that can be used for everything from condoms to brain implants.
To create these tiny channels that are able to conduct electricity, the team used an "acupuncture-like approach" which squeezed the crystal's structure at specific locations using a special needle. The pressure from the needle creates what the researchers described as a "jigsaw puzzle-like pattern of structural variants" around the area where the needle made contact with the crystal. Once the domain walls are created, they can be moved around as desired by applying electrical fields to the crystal.
The research is an exciting proof-of-concept that the researchers hope will find use in creating the miniscule, programmable electrical circuits that will power the technology of tomorrow.