First atomic view of a working quantum electronic device


For the first time, researchers have used ultra-fast electron diffraction (UED), a super-fast camera that detects tiny atomic movements, to observe a quantum electronic device as it operates. The electronic device for this research is a custom-designed miniature switch made of vanadium dioxide. This material can switch between electrically insulating and conducting states. The researchers flipped the switches electrically while taking snapshots showing subtle changes in the atomic arrangement over millionths of a second. These changes correlated with the time-dependent flow of electrons through the switch, allowing the discovery of a short-lived intermediate state. This discovery could lead to faster and more energy-efficient computing devices.

The impact

This research reports on the operation of electronic switches based on vanadium dioxide, a quantum material. The results identify the ultimate limits of the device’s switching speed and show that the switch operates over millions of cycles. This knowledge can lead to designing the material to make the newly discovered state more stable and durable. These advances could enable devices in which switching occurs with minimal atomic motion, enabling faster operation and requiring less power. This approach may also lead to new ways of using pulsed electric fields to create new materials with useful properties.


Microelectronic devices are the brains and heart of modern smartphones and communication networks. Today’s transistors are reaching their fundamental power consumption limits. This creates a need for more power-efficient and fundamentally new switching devices for brain-inspired neuromorphic computing and microelectronics of the future. Such devices inherently involve fast dynamic processes and subtle atomic-scale distortions, necessitating new ways to characterize these devices during operation. In this research, a team of scientists from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University and Hewlett Packard Laboratories observed atomic motions for the first time. and electronics when miniature vanadium dioxide switches operated. The team discovered a short-lived state that could lead to faster, more energy-efficient switching. The research also provides invaluable data on the microscopic phenomena that occur during device operation, which is crucial for the design of circuit models in the future. Finally, the research offers a new way to engineer materials that do not exist under natural conditions, allowing scientists to observe them on ultrafast time scales and then potentially adjust their properties. This approach will enable the creation of next-generation electronic devices capable of meeting the growing global needs for data-intensive intelligent computing.

– This press release was originally published on the US Department of Energy website


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