Researchers at Columbia Engineering, working with colleagues from Princeton and Purdue Universities and Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, have engineered "artificial graphene" by recreating, for the first time, the electronic structure of graphene in a semiconductor device.

Artificial graphene semiconductor imageEtched pillars define the positions of quantum dots (red puddles) arranged in an hexagonal lattice. When the spacing between the quantum dots is sufficiently small, electrons can move between them.

Graphene comes in one atomic arrangement: the positions of the atoms in the graphene lattice are fixed, and so all experiments on graphene must adapt to those constraints. On the other hand, in artificial graphene the lattice can be engineered over a wide range of spacings and configurations, making it convenient for condensed researchers because it will have more versatile properties than the natural material.

The researchers used the tools of conventional chip technology to develop the artificial graphene in a standard semiconductor material, gallium arsenide. They designed a layered structure so that the electrons could move only within a very narrow layer, effectively creating a 2D sheet. They used nanolithography and etching to pattern the gallium arsenide: the patterning created a hexagonal lattice of sites in which the electrons were confined in the lateral direction. By placing these sites, which could be thought of as "artificial atoms," sufficiently close to one another (~ 50 nanometers apart), these artificial atoms could interact quantum mechanically, similar to the way atoms share their electrons in solids.

The team probed the electronic states of the artificial lattices by shining laser light on them and measuring the scatter. The scattered light showed a loss of energy that corresponded to transitions in the electron energy from one state to another. When they mapped these transitions, the team found that they were approaching zero in a linear fashion around what is called the "Dirac point" where the electron density vanishes, a hallmark of graphene.

This artificial graphene has several advantages over natural graphene: for instance, researchers can design variations into the honeycomb lattice to modulate electronic behavior. Since the spacing between the quantum dots is much larger than the inter-atomic spacing in natural graphene, researchers can observe even more exotic quantum phenomena with the application of a magnetic field.

"This milestone defines a new state-of-the-art in condensed matter science and nanofabrication," says the team. "While artificial graphene has been demonstrated in other systems such as optical, molecular, and photonic lattices, these platforms lack the versatility and potential offered by semiconductor processing technologies. Semiconductor artificial graphene devices could be platforms to explore new types of electronic switches, transistors with superior properties, and even, perhaps, new ways of storing information based on exotic quantum mechanical states."

"This work is really a major advance in artificial graphene. Since the first theoretical prediction that system with graphene-like electronic properties may be artificially created and tuned with patterned 2D electron gas, no one had succeeded, until the Columbia work, in directly observing these characteristics in engineered semiconductor nanostructures," say the researchers.