The golden parts of the device depicted in the above graphic are transformable, an ability that is “not realizable with the current materials used in industry,” said Ian Sequeira, a Ph.D. student who worked to develop the technology in the laboratory of Javiar Sanchez-Yamahgishi, UCI Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy. (Image: Yuhui Yang / UCI)

The nanoscale electronic parts in devices like smartphones are solid, static objects that once designed and built cannot transform into anything else. But a team from University of California Irvine has reported the discovery of nanoscale devices that can transform into many different shapes and sizes even though they exist in solid states.

The work, published in Science Advances, could fundamentally change the nature of electronic devices, as well as atomic-scale quantum materials research.

“What we discovered is that for a particular set of materials, you can make nanoscale electronic devices that aren’t stuck together,” said Assistant Professor Javier Sanchez-Yamagishi. “The parts can move, and so that allows us to modify the size and shape of a device after it’s been made.”

The devices are modifiable much like refrigerator door magnets — stuck on but can be reconfigured into any pattern you like.

“The significance of this research is that it demonstrates a new property that can be utilized in these materials that allows for fundamentally different types of devices architectures to be realized, including mechanically reconfigure parts of a circuit,” said Ph.D student Ian Sequeira.

Until now, scientists did not think such a thing was possible. In fact, the team wasn’t even looking for what it ultimately discovered. “It was definitely not what we were initially setting out to do,” said Sanchez-Yamagishi. “We expected everything to be static, but what happened was we were in the middle of trying to measure it, and we accidentally bumped into the device, and we saw that it moved.”

They saw that tiny nanoscale gold wires could slide with very low friction on top of special crystals called “van der Waals materials.” Taking advantage of these slippery interfaces, they made electronic devices made of single-atom-thick sheets of graphene attached to gold wires that can be transformed into a variety of different configurations on the fly.

Because it conducts electricity so well, gold is a common part of electronic components. But exactly how the discovery could impact industries that use such devices is unclear.

“The initial story is more about the basic science of it, although it is an idea which could one day have an effect on industry,” said Sanchez-Yamagishi. “This germinates the idea of it.”

“It could fundamentally change how people do research in this field. Researchers dream of having flexibility and control in their experiments, but there are a lot of restrictions when dealing with nanoscale materials. Our results show that what was once thought to be fixed and static can be made flexible and dynamic,” Sanchez-Yamagish added.

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