Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology and the University of Tsukuba demonstrate that polymers could play a key role in the fabrication of single-molecule electronic devices, allowing us to push the boundaries of the nanoelectronics revolution.
One of the most striking aspects of the electronic devices we have today is their size and the size of their components. Pushing the limits of how small an electronic component can be made is one of the main topics of research in the field of electronics around the world and for good reasons. For example, the accurate manipulation of incredibly small currents using nanoelectronics could allow us to not only improve the current limitations of electronics but also grant them new functionalities.
So, how far down does the rabbit hole go in the field of miniaturization? A research team led by Tomoaki Nishino, Associate Professor of the School of Science at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) is exploring the depths of this; in other words, they are working on single-molecule devices. “Ultimate miniaturization is expected to be realized by molecular electronics, where a single molecule is utilized as a functional element,” explains Nishino.
However, as one would expect, creating electronic components from a single molecule is no easy task. Functional devices consisting of a single molecule are hard to fabricate. Furthermore, the junctions (points of “electric contact”) that involve them have short lifetimes which makes their application difficult. Based on previous works, the research team inferred that a long chain of monomers (single molecules) to form polymers would yield better results than smaller molecules. To demonstrate this idea, they employed a technique called scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), in which a metallic tip that ends in a single atom is used to measure extremely small currents and their fluctuations that occur when the tip creates a junction with an atom or atoms at the target surface (Fig. 1). Through STM, the team created junctions composed of the tip and either a polymer called poly(vinylpyridine) or its monomer counterpart, called 4,4′-trimethylenedipyridine, which can be regarded as one of the components of the polymer. By measuring the conductive properties of these junctions, the researchers sought to prove that polymers could be useful for fabricating single-molecule devices.
However, to carry out their analyses, the team first had to devise an algorithm that allowed them to extract quantities that were of interest to them from the current signals measured by the STM. In short, their algorithm allowed them to automatically detect and count small plateaus in the current signal measured over time from the tip and the target surface; the plateaus indicated that a stable conducting junction was created between the tip and a single molecule on the surface.
Images courtesy of titech.ac.jp