Breakthrough made in atomically thin magnets

Shengwei Jiang, a postdoctoral researcher, aligns an optical setup for magneto-optical Kerr rotation microscopy measurements on atomically thin magnets.
Lindsay France/University Photography

Cornell researchers have become the first to control atomically thin magnets with an electric field, a breakthrough that provides a blueprint for producing exceptionally powerful and efficient data storage in computer chips, among other applications.

The research is detailed in the paper, “Electric-field switching of two-dimensional van der Waals magnets,” published March 12 in Nature Materials by Jie Shan, professor of applied and engineering physics; Kin Fai Mak, assistant professor of physics; and postdoctoral scholar Shengwei Jiang.

In 1966, Cornell physicist David Mermin and his postdoc Herbert Wagner theorized that 2-D magnets could not exist if the spins of their electrons could point in any direction. It wasn’t until 2017 that some of the first 2-D materials with the proper alignment of spins were discovered, opening the door to an entirely new family of materials known as 2-D van der Waals magnets.

Shan and Mak, who specialize in researching atomically thin materials, jumped on the opportunity to research the new magnets and their unique characteristics.

“If it’s a bulk material, you can’t easily access the atoms inside,” said Mak. “But if the magnet is just a monolayer, you can do a lot to it. You can apply an electric field to it, put extra electrons into it, and that can modulate the material properties.”

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