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Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have discovered a unique new twist to the story of graphene, sheets of pure carbon just one atom thick, and in the process appear to have solved a mystery that has held back device development.

Electrons can race through graphene at nearly the speed of light -- 100 times faster than they move through silicon. In addition to being superthin and superfast when it comes to conducting electrons, graphene is also superstrong and superflexible, making it a potential superstar material in the electronics and photonics fields, the basis for a host of devices, starting with ultrafast transistors. One big problem, however, has been that graphene's electron conduction can't be completely stopped, an essential requirement for on/off devices.

The on/off problem stems from monolayers of graphene having no bandgaps -- ranges of energy in which no electron states can exist. Without a bandgap, there is no way to control or modulate electron current and therefore no way to fully realize the enormous promise of graphene in electronic and photonic devices. Berkeley Lab researchers have been able to engineer precisely controlled bandgaps in bilayer graphene through the application of an external electric field. However, when devices were made with these engineered bandgaps, the devices behaved strangely, as if conduction in those bandgaps had not been stopped. Why such devices did not pan out has been a scientific mystery until now.

Working at Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source (ALS), a DOE national user facility, a research team led by ALS scientist Aaron Bostwick has discovered that in the stacking of graphene monolayers subtle misalignments arise, creating an almost imperceptible twist in the final bilayer graphene. Tiny as it is -- as small as 0.1 degree -- this twist can lead to surprisingly strong changes in the bilayer graphene's electronic properties.

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