Having grown the materials, they then had to figure out how to reveal the atomic configurations and orientations of the different layers. A scanning transmission electron microscope actually produces more information than is apparent in a flat image; in fact, every point in the image contains details of the paths along which the electrons arrived and departed (the process of diffraction), as well as any energy that the electrons lost in the process. All these data can be separated out so that the information at all points in an image can be used to decode the actual solid structure. This process is only possible for state-of-the-art microscopes, such as that in MIT.nano, which generates a probe of electrons that is unusually narrow and precise.
The researchers used a combination of techniques called 4D STEM and integrated differential phase contrast to achieve that process of extracting the full structure at the interface from the image. Then, Varnavides says, they asked, “Now that we can image the full structure at the interface, what does this mean for our understanding of the properties of this interface?” The researchers showed through modeling that electronic properties are expected to be modified in a way that can only be understood if the full structure of the interface is included in the physical theory. “What we found is that indeed this stacking, the way the atoms are stacked out-of-plane, does modulate the electronic and charge density properties,” he says.
Ross says the findings could help lead to improved kinds of junctions in some microchips, for example. “Every 2D material that’s used in a device has to exist in the 3D world, and so it has to have a junction somehow with three-dimensional materials,” she says. So, with this better understanding of those interfaces, and new ways to study them in action, “we’re in good shape for making structures with desirable properties in a kind of planned rather than ad hoc way.”
“The present work opens a field by itself, allowing the application of this methodology to the growing research line of moiré engineering, highly important in fields such as quantum physics or even in catalysis,” says Jordi Arbiol of the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Spain, who was not associated with this work.
“The methodology used has the potential to calculate from the acquired local diffraction patterns the modulation of the local electron momentum,” he says, adding