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August 9, 2018
The general public might think of the 21st century as an era of revolutionary technological platforms, such as smartphones or social media. But for many scientists, this century is the era of another type of platform: two-dimensional materials, and their unexpected secrets.
These 2-D materials can be prepared in crystalline sheets as thin as a single monolayer, only one or a few atoms thick. Within a monolayer, electrons are restricted in how they can move: Like pieces on a board game, they can move front to back, side to side or diagonally — but not up or down This constraint makes monolayers functionally two-dimensional.
The 2-D realm exposes properties predicted by quantum mechanics — the probability-wave-based rules that underlie the behavior of all matter. Since graphene — the first monolayer — debuted in 2004, scientists have isolated many other 2-D materials and shown that they harbor unique physical and chemical properties that could revolutionize computing and telecommunications, among other fields.
For a team led by scientists at the University of Washington, the 2-D form of one metallic compound — tungsten ditelluride, or WTe2 — is a bevy of quantum revelations. In a paper published online July 23 in the journal Nature, researchers report their latest discovery about WTe2: Its 2-D form can undergo “ferroelectric switching.” They found that when two monolayers are combined, the resulting “bilayer” develops a spontaneous electrical polarization. This polarization can be flipped between two opposite states by an applied electric field.
“Finding ferroelectric switching in this 2-D material was a complete surprise,” said senior author David Cobden, a UW professor of physics. “We weren’t looking for it, but we saw odd behavior, and after making a hypothesis about its nature we designed some experiments that confirmed it nicely.”
When two monolayers of WTe2 are stacked into a bilayer, a spontaneous electrical polarization appears, one layer becoming positively charged …