The Materials Research Institute’s 2D Crystal Consortium is currently the only institutional facility in the United States where scientists can readily access state-of-the- art equipment for creating 2D materials—wafer-thin films of crystal a mere one or more atoms thick with unique quantum properties that hold great promise for the future of semiconductor microelectronics beyond silicon.
Even before the 2DCC was officially launched in 2016 with a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Materials Innovation Fund, Penn State already had some expertise in characterizing and synthesizing 2D materials, says Joan Redwing, director of the 2DCC. “It wasn’t anything fancy at the time—just several faculty members working with small furnaces,” she says. The grant, though, allowed the group to purchase the highly sophisticated equipment required for molecular beam epitaxy, chemical vapor deposition, and other processes that alter the structure of chunk crystals—they’re grown at the 2DCC—and turn them into super thin, two-dimensional discs.
“What we essentially do is take a highly polished crystal with a surface that is really, really flat,” says Nitin Samarth, the 2DCC’s associate director, “and then on that substrate, as it’s called, we beam atoms that land on it and create a layer. It’s like playing Lego with atoms: One layer of Lego is one layer of atoms.”
Two-dimensional crystals, Redwing says, embody the ultimate limit in terms of possible flexibility and thinness of any material. They are also surprisingly robust, she says, and they behave in very different ways from bulk crystals, which makes them integral to the engineering of NextGen electronics. “When you shrink crystalline material down to a single layer, its properties change and it is able to emit light really efficiently,” she says.
This is particularly attractive to semiconductor companies looking to engineer circuits for computers, cellphones, and other future generation electronics; 2D material will not only make these devices faster, Redwing says, but also far more energy efficient.
The 2DCC, which is used by faculty from other Penn State colleges as well as researchers from outside the university, was refunded by the NSF in 2021 for another five years. Funds are going toward hiring more research professors and post-doctoral scholars and toward creating a new data sharing tool that can be used by other scientists. The money will also be used to buy new equipment, including the only one in the U.S. of a particular kind of furnace, for synthesizing bulk crystals with utmost precision.