UVM discovery of thinnest film ever could have big impacts for tech

Published: Jun. 13, 2018 at 3:50 PM EDT
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A discovery at the University of Vermont could have big implications for technology down the line.

They're called quantum films, with layers so small they're only a few atoms thick. Think of the thin film that forms on the inside of your car windshield on a rainy and humid day, only infinitesimally smaller. And understanding them might help scientists engineer better technology in the future.

To fully understand Sanghita Sengupta's work, you need the Ph.D. in theoretical physics that she just earned. So when her team's study was published Friday in the Physical Review Letters journal, she says even her family in India wasn't quite sure what to say.

"I sent them it yesterday and some of them were happy... and some of them were like, 'OK,'" Sengupta said with a laugh.

In layman's terms, she and her team discovered how to create the thinnest liquid films ever. They found that in a vacuum, light gasses like hydrogen, helium and nitrogen would grow on graphene, but only until they were about 10 or 20 atoms thick. The theory has been around since the mid-1900s but until now, no one had been able to mathematically prove it.

But more importantly, her team also found out how to "tune" the films.

"Whatever you grow, you want to have some amount of control in it," Sengupta said.

Graphene is a two-dimensional form of graphite that is only one atom thick. It is a relatively new discovery, billed as having potentially revolutionary possibilities for computers, smartphones and other electronic devices in the future. It's a great conductor until things are stuck to it. Having a thin film coating over the graphene could protect it, which means UVM's research could lead to new possibilities for tech companies in the future.

"I think in industry, they struggle a lot to figure out what are the different parameters you can tune. And these are quantum materials. They are booming. And you would want to know how to control them," Sengupta said.

What's next for this work? Sengupta says since this is a theoretical work, she also wants other scientists to pick it up and experiment with it to prove that it is correct.