Researchers at Penn State may have discovered the next big leap in 2D materials by creating controlled grain boundaries.

When I was younger, the idea of dimensions beyond the fourth completely blew my mind. The idea of a reality expanding beyond what I could even perceive was one of the most interesting things I could think about.

As it turns out, I was thinking too big. The future isn’t in the fifth, seventh, or eighteenth dimension that we have yet to discover. The future, my dear readers, is doubling back and getting a better understanding of the second dimension.

This understanding comes in the form of 2D materials, which are only an atom thick. With their unique properties, these materials could be the layer that brings us incredible tech advances.

What kinds of tech advances, you may ask? How about things like quantum computing, or ultra-strong, lightweight, superconductive materials?

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Hopefully, that has your attention. It sure has the attention of the scientific community.

Recently, two researchers from Penn State have designed an improvement for 2D materials that could grant them an incredible boost in efficiency.

Thanks to the work of Yuanxi Wang and Vincent H. Crespi at Penn State, we could be seeing the end of unpredictable grain boundaries. This has a number of exciting of potential applications.

What is a Grain Boundary, Anyway?

Here’s a lesson from Euclidian Geometry 101.

Imagine you are in a formless, shapeless void. Anything going in any given direction gives that void one dimension. Let’s call that movement along the X axis. If only one more axis is allowed, say the Y axis, but not a perpendicular axis like the Z axis, you have a 2D plane.

Now, what do you think happens if two things on a two-dimensional plane collide?

If they can pile atop one another, you have a third dimension. But we don’t want that–it defeats the purpose of working with 2D materials.

When 2D materials meet, they are arranged into grains. Where the individual grains meet, a grain boundary forms.

Think of it as the lining in a stained glass window, except it happens in random places. Or, at least, it used to.

With such unpredictable grain boundaries, 2D materials have been prone to losing heat or electric current. Now, however, we have some measure of predictability. That predictability is what makes Wang and Crespi’s work so groundbreaking.

“When you are growing a 2D material, a thin film, you are depositing materials on a substrate. As the atoms fall onto the substrate, they self-organize into crystalline areas called grains,” Crespi said.

These grains expand as the crystalline areas grow, and when two areas meet, you get a grain boundary. Before Wang and Crespi, that boundary was as random as paint on one of Jackson Pollock’s canvasses. Now, though, they can neatly organize it using what is known as a Gaussian curvature.

A Gaussian curvature in action.

A Gaussian curvature resembles the shape of an egg-carton (what I know to be good sound-proofing). As the grains grow to the top of a hump, the boundary forms at the apex of the curve.

Basically, they grew their layers on a curved surface instead of a flat one, and that made all the difference. Before you start thinking that’s simple, remember that this is happening with a layer that has a thickness of a single atom. This is super-science, folks, even if it’s a bit flat.

The Future of Grain Boundaries in two Dimensions

At this point, you may be thinking: “So, what does this have to do with us non-material scientists?” I’m glad you asked, because materials like this may have a huge effect on the future of tech.

Before we start talking about what future tech we’ll see from this discovery, let’s get a baseline idea of why 2D materials are so sought after.

First off, 2D materials are amazing at conducting heat and electricity. Historically, materials like copper have been used for that purpose, but copper has nothing on graphene. graphene is highly conductive, is able to be synthesized, and is highly sought after for electronics and energy storage.

Most scientists think the most interesting applications will be those in future memory storage.

In fact, according to Jing Xia at the University of California, Irvine, 2D materials like graphene could help stabilize quantum computers.

To put things into perspective, Crespi and Wang’s work is coming right on the heels of Xia’s research. If predictable grain boundaries help with the production of 2D materials, then it may translate to help for the scalability of quantum computers.

That’s just one area of technology, though.


Where else could predictable grain boundaries be applied to future tech?

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