Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory have demonstrated, for the first time, the use of graphene as a tunnel barrier — an electrically insulating barrier between two conducting materials through which electrons tunnel quantum mechanically. They report fabrication of magnetic tunnel junctions using graphene, a single atom thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice, between two ferromagnetic metal layers in a fully scalable photolithographic process. Their results demonstrate that single-layer graphene can function as an effective tunnel barrier for both charge and spin-based devices, and enable realization of more complex graphene-based devices for highly functional nanoscale circuits, such as tunnel transistors, non-volatile magnetic memory and reprogrammable spin logic. These research results are published in the online issue of Nano Letters (14 May 2012; DOI: 10.1021/nl3007616).
The research initiates a "paradigm shift in tunnel barrier technology for magnetic tunnel junctions (MTJs) used for advanced sensors, memory and logic," explains NRL's Dr. Berend Jonker. Graphene has been the focus of intense research activity because of its remarkable electronic and mechanical properties. In the past, researchers focused on developing graphene as a conductor, or perhaps a semiconductor, where the current flows in-plane parallel to the carbon honeycomb sheet. In contrast, the NRL researchers show that graphene serves as an excellent tunnel barrier when current is directed perpendicular to the plane, and in fact, also preserves the spin polarization of the tunneling current.