2D materials and van der Waals heterostructures

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Science  29 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6298, aac9439
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac9439

Structured Abstract


Materials by design is an appealing idea that is very hard to realize in practice. Combining the best of different ingredients in one ultimate material is a task for which we currently have no general solution. However, we do have some successful examples to draw upon: Composite materials and III-V heterostructures have revolutionized many aspects of our lives. Still, we need a general strategy to solve the problem of mixing and matching crystals with different properties, creating combinations with predetermined attributes and functionalities.


Two-dimensional (2D) materials offer a platform that allows creation of heterostructures with a variety of properties. One-atom-thick crystals now comprise a large family of these materials, collectively covering a very broad range of properties. The first material to be included was graphene, a zero-overlap semimetal. The family of 2D crystals has grown to includes metals (e.g., NbSe2), semiconductors (e.g., MoS2), and insulators [e.g., hexagonal boron nitride (hBN)]. Many of these materials are stable at ambient conditions, and we have come up with strategies for handling those that are not. Surprisingly, the properties of such 2D materials are often very different from those of their 3D counterparts. Furthermore, even the study of familiar phenomena (like superconductivity or ferromagnetism) in the 2D case, where there is no long-range order, raises many thought-provoking questions.

A plethora of opportunities appear when we start to combine several 2D crystals in one vertical stack. Held together by van der Waals forces (the same forces that hold layered materials together), such heterostructures allow a far greater number of combinations than any traditional growth method. As the family of 2D crystals is expanding day by day, so too is the complexity of the heterostructures that could be created with atomic precision.

When stacking different crystals together, the synergetic effects become very important. In the first-order approximation, charge redistribution might occur between the neighboring (and even more distant) crystals in the stack. Neighboring crystals can also induce structural changes in each other. Furthermore, such changes can be controlled by adjusting the relative orientation between the individual elements.

Such heterostructures have already led to the observation of numerous exciting physical phenomena. Thus, spectrum reconstruction in graphene interacting with hBN allowed several groups to study the Hofstadter butterfly effect and topological currents in such a system. The possibility of positioning crystals in very close (but controlled) proximity to one another allows for the study of tunneling and drag effects. The use of semiconducting monolayers leads to the creation of optically active heterostructures.

The extended range of functionalities of such heterostructures yields a range of possible applications. Now the highest-mobility graphene transistors are achieved by encapsulating graphene with hBN. Photovoltaic and light-emitting devices have been demonstrated by combining optically active semiconducting layers and graphene as transparent electrodes.


Currently, most 2D heterostructures are composed by direct stacking of individual monolayer flakes of different materials. Although this method allows ultimate flexibility, it is slow and cumbersome. Thus, techniques involving transfer of large-area crystals grown by chemical vapor deposition (CVD), direct growth of heterostructures by CVD or physical epitaxy, or one-step growth in solution are being developed. Currently, we are at the same level as we were with graphene 10 years ago: plenty of interesting science and unclear prospects for mass production. Given the fast progress of graphene technology over the past few years, we can expect similar advances in the production of the heterostructures, making the science and applications more achievable.

Production of van der Waals heterostructures.

Owing to a large number of 2D crystals available today, many functional van der Waals heterostructures can be created. What started with mechanically assembled stacks (top) has now evolved to large-scale growth by CVD or physical epitaxy (bottom).


The physics of two-dimensional (2D) materials and heterostructures based on such crystals has been developing extremely fast. With these new materials, truly 2D physics has begun to appear (for instance, the absence of long-range order, 2D excitons, commensurate-incommensurate transition, etc.). Novel heterostructure devices—such as tunneling transistors, resonant tunneling diodes, and light-emitting diodes—are also starting to emerge. Composed from individual 2D crystals, such devices use the properties of those materials to create functionalities that are not accessible in other heterostructures. Here we review the properties of novel 2D crystals and examine how their properties are used in new heterostructure devices.

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