LEDs are already pretty tiny, but they just got a whole lot smaller. Researchers at the University of Washington have built what they say are the “thinnest-possible LEDs” — tiny lights that measure just three atoms thick. “Such thin and foldable LEDs are critical for future portable and integrated electronic devices,” Xiaodong Xu, co-author of a paper on the research that was published over the weekend in Nature Nanotechnology, says in a statement. At three atoms thick, the researchers’ LEDs are said to be 10 to 20 times thinner than conventional LEDs, opening up a number of potential new uses for them.
As Xu notes, these super-thin LEDs are foldable, making flexible or wearable devices one potential application. But it’s possible that they could be used for much more than traditional LEDs: because they’re so thin, the researchers suggest that optical signals could eventually replace electrons in certain types of miniaturized computer chips, making for a cooler, more efficient operation. “Our work makes it possible to make highly integrated and energy-efficient devices in areas such as lighting, optical communication, and nano lasers,” Xu says.
In his statement, Xu doesn’t say why his lab believes that LEDs can’t get any smaller, but they do say how theirs got to be so tiny. The lights are built out of tungsten diselenide, which is separated into super-thin layers using a method famously created for producing single-atom sheets of graphene: pulling it apart using scotch tape. Still, the research team is hoping to develop a more efficient way of creating its thin LEDs for the future. “This is a huge leap of miniaturization of technology,” co-author Jason Ross says in a statement. “And because it’s a semiconductor, you can do almost everything with it that is possible with existing, three-dimensional silicon technologies.”