Atom-scale semiconducting composites

A little change in temperature makes a big difference for growing a new generation of hybrid atomic-layer structures, according to scientists at Rice University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University and Pennsylvania State University.

Rice scientists led the first single-step growth of self-assembled hybrid layers made of two elements that can either be side by side and one-atom thick or stacked atop each other. The structure’s final form can be tuned by changing the growth temperature.

The discovery reported online this week in Nature Materials could lead to what Rice materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan calls “pixel engineering”: atomically thin semiconductors with no limit to their potential for use in optoelectronic devices.

Schematic of the synthesis and the overall morphologies of the vertically stacked and in-plane ​WS2/​MoS2 heterostructures.

Nature Materials – Vertical and in-plane heterostructures from ​WS2/​MoS2 monolayers

The researchers led by Ajayan and Wu Zhou, a materials scientist at Oak Ridge, discovered the interesting new composites when they combined the growth of two-dimensional molybdenum disulfide and tungsten disulfide through chemical vapor deposition. In this process, specific gases are heated in a furnace, where their atoms gather in an orderly fashion around a catalyst to form the crystalline material.

High-temperature growth – about 850 degrees Celsius (1,563 degrees Fahrenheit) – yielded vertically stacked bilayers, with tungsten on top. At lower temperatures, about 650 degrees C (1,202 degrees F), the crystal lattices preferred to grow side by side. The interfaces in either material are sharp and clean, as seen under a scanning electron microscope and in spectroscopic studies.

“With the advent of 2-D layered materials, people are trying to build artificial structures using graphene and now dichalcogenides as building blocks,” Ajayan said. Because graphene is atomically thin and flat and dichalcogenides like molybdenum disulfide are not quite that flat, there is some incompatibility when these are grown together — but two dichalcogenides with different compositions could be compatible. “We show that depending on the conditions, we can combine two dichalcogenides to grow either in-plane hybrid or in stacks.”

The monolayer composites have small but stable band gaps, while the stacked composite layers show modified electronic properties such as enhanced photoluminescence, which will be useful for electronics that rely on optical signals.

“What’s even more interesting is that the layered structure has a particular lock-in stacking order,” Zhou said. “When you stack 2-D materials by transferring layers, there’s no way to control their orientation to one another. That impacts their electronic properties. In this paper, we demonstrate that in a certain window, we can get a particular stacking order during growth, with a particular orientation.”

The new materials could be used for vertically stacked field-effect transistors as well as electronic devices only a few atoms thick, he said.

“We should be able to tweak certain regions to control certain functions, like light or terahertz emission,” said Robert Vajtai of Rice, a co-author of the study. “The whole idea, really, is to create domains with different electronic characters within a single layer.”

“Our goal is to build fully functional electronic devices on a single plane, or maybe a few layers,” added Mauricio Terrones, a co-author from Penn State. “What we’ve accomplished means that pretty much any architecture for devices is now possible on a single atomic layer. And that’s remarkable.”


Layer-by-layer stacking or lateral interfacing of atomic monolayers has opened up unprecedented opportunities to engineer two-dimensional heteromaterials. Fabrication of such artificial heterostructures with atomically clean and sharp interfaces, however, is challenging. Here, we report a one-step growth strategy for the creation of high-quality vertically stacked as well as in-plane interconnected heterostructures of ​WS2 / ​MoS2 via control of the growth temperature. Vertically stacked bilayers with ​WS2 epitaxially grown on top of the ​MoS2 monolayer are formed with preferred stacking order at high temperature. A strong interlayer excitonic transition is observed due to the type II band alignment and to the clean interface of these bilayers. Vapour growth at low temperature, on the other hand, leads to lateral epitaxy of ​WS2 on ​MoS2 edges, creating seamless and atomically sharp in-plane heterostructures that generate strong localized photoluminescence enhancement and intrinsic p–n junctions. The fabrication of heterostructures from monolayers, using simple and scalable growth, paves the way for the creation of unprecedented two-dimensional materials with exciting properties.

33 pages of supplemental material

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