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boron nitride

Using Boron Nitride to Improve Electronics

Overcoming a key obstacle to using boron nitride in electronics paves the way to dramatically improved performance for future components and devices.

Scientists have long known that boron nitride—a layered 2D material—could improve the performance of electronics. However, it hasn’t been easy to incorporate the material into electronics components because of some of its innate characteristics—until now, that is. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) have found a way to alter boron nitride so it can successfully bind to other materials used in electronics—overcoming a key obstacle to this application of the material, they said in a UIC news release.

Treatment with a superacid causes boron nitride layers to separate and become positively charged, allowing for it to interface with other nanoparticles like gold. This paves the way for its use in myriad new applications to dramatically improve the performance of electronics. (Image source: Vikas Berry, University of Illinois at Chicago)

Boron Nitride

Boron nitride is strong, ultra thin, transparent, insulating, lightweight, and thermally conductive, which makes it well suited, in theory, to a wide range of applications. However, the material also is naturally resistant to chemicals and lacks surface-level molecular binding, which in short has made it difficult to integrate it in electronics, researchers said.

Together with his team, Vikas Berry, associate professor and head of chemical engineering at the UIC College of Engineering, treated boron nitride with a superacid called chlorosulfonic acid. This causes its layers to separate into atomically thick sheets while at the same time creating binding sites on the surface of these sheets that allow nanoparticles, molecules, and other 2D nanomaterials like graphene to interface, Berry said. Graphene is a so-called “wonder material” that is known for its light weight as well as its electrical conductivity, he said.

“Boron nitride is like a stack of highly sticky papers in a ream. And by treating this ream with chlorosulfonic acid, we introduced positive charges on the boron nitride layers that caused the sheets to repel each other and separate,” Berry said.

Their treatment of the material means that now, even nanotechnologies that use boron nitride to insulate nano-circuits can interface with boron nitride, he said. “We showed that the positive charges on the surfaces of the separated boron nitride sheets make it more chemically active,” Berry said. “The protonation—the addition of positive charges to atoms—of internal and edge nitrogen atoms creates a scaffold to which other materials can bind.”

Researchers published their findings in a paper in the journal ACS Nano. In addition to Berry’s team at the University of Illinois, scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology and Kansas State University participated in the research and co-authored the paper.

Using their discovery, researchers now have a multitude of new opportunities to use boron nitride to improve composite materials for a variety of next-generation applications—particularly for electronics, Berry said. “We can potentially use this material in all kinds of electronics, like optoelectronic and piezoelectric devices, and in many other applications, from solar-cell passivation layers, which function as filters to absorb only certain types of light, to medical diagnostic devices,” he said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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