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Boffins boast of 'slidetronics' breakthrough enabling binary switch just two atoms thick

Finding could boost performance and efficiency of future gadgets

The latest Apple fondleslab is thin, sure, but it could be thinner – like what boffins at Tel Aviv University have hailed as "the world's tiniest technology," measuring just two atoms thick.

"Our research stems from curiosity about the behavior of atoms and electrons in solid materials," explained Moshe Ben Shalom, PhD, responsible for building Tel Aviv University's lab for layered two-dimensional materials, "which has generated many of the technologies supporting our modern way of life."

Granted, describing what Ben Shalom and colleagues have created as "technology" puts it in the same space as an Apple iPad in only the broadest of ways. Far from being something you might slip into – or through – your pocket for a cheeky browse of El Reg on the go, it's an example of the most basic of technologies: a binary switch.

Compared to the switches that power a modern processor, it's clear to see why the team has trumpeted its work as a breakthrough: where state-of-the-art examples today are around a hundred atoms on a side, giving a total volume of one million atoms, the switch Ben Shalom and colleagues created is two atoms in total.

The technology, dubbed "slidetronics", is built of stacked layers of single-atom boron and nitrogen sheets arranged in a repeating hexagonal grid – much like graphene, the oft-praised but rarely commercialised wonder material made from single-atom sheets of carbon. Layered carefully enough, the two slide in order to perfectly overlap half of their atoms – opposites to opposites.

"The symmetry breaking we created in the laboratory, which does not exist in the natural crystal, forces the electric charge to reorganise itself between the layers and generate a tiny internal electrical polarisation perpendicular to the layer plane," study lead Maayan Wizner Stern explained.

"When we apply an external electric field in the opposite direction the system slides laterally to switch the polarisation orientation. The switched polarisation remains stable even when the external field is shut down. In this the system is similar to thick three-dimensional ferroelectric systems, which are widely used in technology today."

Its inventors claim the novel switch could be the basis for a sea change in electronic performance, boosting devices' speed and energy efficiency while dropping their sizes considerably compared to today's systems. They did not, however, offer a timeline for for the tech to leave the lab.

The paper has been published in the journal Science. ®

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