Electrical wires small enough they can only be seen through a microscope may sound like something only possible in a science fiction movie, but that’s just one of the many applications for the two-dimensional semiconductor crystals being grown at the University of Tennessee and licensed to research institutions around the world.
Researchers in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in UT’s College of Engineering have successfully grown four combinations of these crystals which are being used by the scientific community for cutting edge research in solar energy, dry lubrication, energy storage, nitrogen monoxide sensors, lithium ion batteries and flexible electronics.
UT Professor David Mandrus, who initially had the idea that UT should begin growing crystals in order to make these materials widely available to the scientific community, explained that while there are many applications for these crystals, the idea driving the major interest in these samples is the fact that they can be reduced down to incredibly thin layers of atoms and used to build electrical devices.
“These crystals can be cleaved down until they are extremely thin, only three layers of atoms wide. They are true semiconductors, so they’re very attractive for making nanoelectronics,”said Mandrus.
Mandrus said that increasing scientific access to high quality crystals is an idea he’d been pursuing for years, and it finally came to fruition through the Tennessee Crystal Synthesis Initiative, an Organized Research Unit (ORU) supported by the UT Office of Research & Engagement.
“We received about $15,000 a year for two years. It sponsored some workshops and got this project off the ground,” said Mandrus.
Once researchers at UT became proficient at growing these specialized crystals, they found them to be in high demand. Several outside entities inquired about licensing crystals for their research, and eventually, that led to the creation of the Tennessee Crystal Center. Michael Koehler, a Materials Science and Engineering post-doctorate research associate, manages the center. He grows the crystals, accepts orders and ships the materials around the world. His first order came from a university in Switzerland. Koehler hopes to expand UT’s crystal offering from the current four combinations to upwards of 10 within the next year or two.
In a first for UT, the crystals are available for license online through an easy to use electronic licensing process set up by the UT Research Foundation. Licensees must agree to the terms and conditions set forth by UTRF before payment is accepted.
“Most of the companies and researchers working on the nanowire projects aren’t set up to grow their own materials, so the Tennessee Crystal Center is providing a huge service to the scientific community by offering these high quality crystals for license,” said Mandrus.
UTRF hopes this opens the door for other UT technologies and innovations, including software and other materials, to be widely available for license through a simple online license.
“We’re really excited about the Tennessee Crystal Center,” said David Millhorn, University of Tennessee Executive Vice President and President of UTRF. “UTRF is always looking for innovative ways to license intellectual property and generate revenue for research at the university. This is a win-win for the researchers, UT and the scientific community as a whole.”
In addition to being licensed, these crystals are also being used for ongoing research on the University of Tennessee campus.