Researchers say a new "species" of electrons that break the rule about how electrons are supposed to move in an electrical field could be a step toward faster computers using less power.
Collaboration between U.S. and British researchers has created a material based on graphene in which electrons can be controlled to move at an angle to an applied electric field, in the way that a sailboat can travel diagonally across the wind.
The substance they've developed consists of graphene -- a one atom-thick layer of carbon -- placed atop boron nitride, with the crystal lattices within the two materials aligned.
Electrons in the resulting "superlattices" behave like neutrinos that have gained mass, resulting in a novel relativistic behavior that allows them to skew their paths at large angles to an applied field, the researchers say.
The effect has no apparent analogue in particle physics, say the researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Britain's University of Manchester who've published their results in the journal Science.
"It is quite a fascinating effect, and it hits a very soft spot in our understanding of complex, so-called topological materials," says Manchester Nobel laureate Sir Andre Geim. "It is extremely rare to come across a phenomenon that bridges materials science, particle physics, relativity and topology."
The discovery could lead to high-performance graphene electronics that could compete with silicon-based devices, the researchers say.
Electronics based on graphene superlattices should require less energy than conventional semiconductor transistors, they point out, because the charge carriers move perpendicular to the electric field, reducing energy dissipation.
MIT researcher Leonid Levitov says such unconventional approaches to technology, like the "superlattice" graphene transistor, are the key to faster, more powerful and more efficient computing.
"The demonstrated transistor highlights the promise of graphene-based systems for alternative ways of information processing," he says.
The University of Manchester has been at the forefront of research into graphene, often called a "miracle material," and has recently announced it will build a $100 million Graphene Engineering Innovation Center to open in 2017.
It will join the university's National Graphene Institute, currently under construction and set to open next year.
"Graphene is potentially a game-changer -- its properties make it one of the most important commercial scientific breakthroughs in recent memory," university Chancellor George Osborne said in announcing the engineering center.
Manchester professors Sir Andre Gein and Sir Kostya Novoselov, both Russian-born, first isolated graphene in 2004, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.
Both were knighted for their achievement in 2012.