Researchers have found a new method to check the electronic properties of oxide materials by controlling the conductivity of materials at the nanoscale. The method does not interfere with other properties of the material, making it possible to combine different functions in the same material — an important advance for nanoscale technology.
Controlling charged particles on a minute scale is part of daily life — flipping a light switch or turning on an appliance. But on a much smaller nanoscale, scientists are now routinely able to manipulate the flow of electrons. This opens up possibilities for even smaller components in computers and mobile phones that use barely any electricity.
A basic problem remains, however. Nanoscale electronic components can be simulated but some of the most promising concepts seem mutually exclusive — multiple components cannot be combined to create a network. Utilizing quantum phenomena requires extreme precision to maintain the right ratio of different substances in the material while changing the chemical structure of the material, which is necessary to create artificial synapses to simulate the properties of nerve pathways.
The new approach is based on exploiting hidden irregularities at the atomic level called anti-Frenkel defects. The researchers created such defects themselves, enabling an insulating material to become electrically conducting.
Defects in the material are related to its various properties; however, the anti-Frenkel defects can be manipulated in such a way that changes in the conductivity do not affect the actual structure of the material or change its other properties such as magnetism and ferroelectricity. Maintaining the structural integrity makes it possible to design multifunctional devices using the same material.
Another advantage of the new approach is that researchers can erase components on a nanoscale using a simple heat treatment. Then, components in the material can be changed or upgraded in the material afterwards. This could enable electronics to last longer instead of recycling them or disposing of them — they could be upgraded instead.