Over the past couple of years, Zhang and his group have been carrying out detailed studies of molybdenum disulfide, a 2D semiconductor that features high electrical conductance comparable to that of graphene, but, unlike graphene, has natural energy band-gaps, which means its conductance can be switched off.
"Transition metal dichalcogenides such as molybdenum disulfide can retain their atomic structures down to the single layer limit without lattice reconstruction, even in ambient conditions," Zhang says. "Recent calculations predicted the existence of piezoelectricity in these 2D crystals due to their broken inversion symmetry. To test this, we combined a laterally applied electric field with nano-indentation in an atomic force microscope for the measurement of piezoelectrically-generated membrane stress."
Zhang and his group used a free-standing molybdenum disulfide single layer crystal to avoid any substrate effects, such as doping and parasitic charge, in their measurements of the intrinsic piezoelectricity. They recorded a piezoelectric coefficient of 2.9×10-10 C/m, which is comparable to many widely used materials such as zinc oxide and aluminum nitride.
"Knowing the piezoelectric coefficient is important for designing atomically thin devices and estimating their performance," says Nature paper co-lead author Zhu. "The piezoelectric coefficient we found in molybdenum disulfide is sufficient for use in low-power logic switches and biological sensors that are sensitive to molecular mass limits."