Scientists are experimenting with narrow strips of graphene, called nanoribbons, in hopes of making cool new electronic devices, but University of California, Berkeley scientists have discovered another possible role for them: as nanoscale electron traps with potential applications in quantum computers.
Graphene, a sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a rigid, honeycomb lattice resembling chicken wire, has interesting electronic properties of its own. But when scientists cut off a strip less than about 5 nanometers in width – less than one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair – the graphene nanoribbon takes on new quantum properties, making it a potential alternative to silicon semiconductors.
UC Berkeley theoretician Steven Louie, a professor of physics, predicted last year that joining two different types of nanoribbons could yield a unique material, one that immobilizes single electrons at the junction between ribbon segments.
In order to accomplish this, however, the electron “topology” of the two nanoribbon pieces must be different. Topology here refers to the shape that propagating electron states adopt as they move quantum mechanically through a nanoribbon, a subtle property that had been ignored in graphene nanoribbons until Louie’s prediction.
Two of Louie’s colleagues, chemist Felix Fischer and physicist Michael Crommie, became excited by his idea and the potential applications of trapping electrons in nanoribbons and teamed up to test the prediction. Together they were able to experimentally demonstrate that junctions of nanoribbons having the proper topology are occupied by individual localized electrons.
A nanoribbon made according to Louie’s recipe with alternating ribbon strips of different widths, forming a nanoribbon superlattice, produces a conga line of electrons that interact quantum mechanically. Depending on the strips’ distance apart, the new hybrid nanoribbon is either a metal, a semiconductor or a chain of qubits, the basic elements of a quantum computer.
“This gives us a new way to control the electronic and magnetic properties of graphene nanoribbons,” said Crommie, a UC Berkeley professor of physics. “We spent years changing the properties of nanoribbons using more conventional methods, but playing with their topology gives us a powerful new way to modify the fundamental properties of nanoribbons that we never suspected existed until now.”