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A Step Forward for Quantum Tech: Researchers Attach Electrodes to Graphene Nanoribbons

Carbon nanotube electrodes attached to nanoribbons.
Empa researchers and their international collaborators have successfully attached carbon nanotube electrodes to individual atomically precise nanoribbons. Credit: Empa.
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Graphene nanoribbons have outstanding properties that can be precisely controlled. Researchers from Empa and ETH Zurich, in collaboration with partners from Peking University, the University of Warwick and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, have succeeded in attaching electrodes to individual atomically precise nanoribbons, paving the way for precise characterization of the fascinating ribbons and their possible use in quantum technology.

Quantum technology is promising, but also perplexing. In the coming decades, it is expected to provide us with various technological breakthroughs: smaller and more precise sensors, highly secure communication networks, and powerful computers that can help develop new drugs and materials, control financial markets, and predict the weather much faster than current computing technology ever could.

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To achieve this, we need so-called quantum materials: substances that exhibit pronounced quantum physical effects. One such material is graphene. This two-dimensional structural form of carbon has unusual physical properties, such as extraordinarily high tensile strength, thermal and electrical conductivity – as well as certain quantum effects. Restricting the already two-dimensional material even further, for instance, by giving it a ribbon-like shape, gives rise to a range of controllable quantum effects.

This is precisely what Mickael Perrin's team leverage in their work: For several years now, scientists in Empa's Transport at Nanoscale Interfaces laboratory, headed by Michel Calame, have been conducting research on graphene nanoribbons under Perrin's leadership. "Graphene nanoribbons are even more fascinating than graphene itself," explains Perrin. "By varying their length and width, as well as the shape of their edges, and by adding other atoms to them, you can give them all kinds of electrical, magnetic, and optical properties."

Ultimate precision – down to single atoms

Research on the promising ribbons isn't easy. The narrower the ribbon, the more pronounced its quantum properties are – but it also becomes more difficult to access a single ribbon at a time. This is precisely what must be done in order to understand the unique characteristics and possible applications of this quantum material and distinguish them from collective effects.

From computers to energy converters

The scientists confirmed the success of their experiment through charge transport measurements. "Because quantum effects are usually more pronounced at low temperature, we performed the measurements at temperatures close to absolute zero in a high vacuum," Perrin explains. But he is quick to add yet another particularly promising quality of graphene nanoribbons: "Due to the extremely small size of these nanoribbons, we expect their quantum effects to be so robust that they are observable even at room temperature." This, the researcher says, could allow us to design and operate chips that actively harness quantum effects without the need for an elaborate cooling infrastructure.

Reference: Zhang J, Qian L, Barin GB, et al. Contacting individual graphene nanoribbons using carbon nanotube electrodes. Nat Electron. 2023. doi: 10.1038/s41928-023-00991-3

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