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Grains and grain boundaries in single-layer graphene atomic patchwork quilts

Nature volume 469, pages 389392 (20 January 2011) | Download Citation



The properties of polycrystalline materials are often dominated by the size of their grains and by the atomic structure of their grain boundaries. These effects should be especially pronounced in two-dimensional materials, where even a line defect can divide and disrupt a crystal. These issues take on practical significance in graphene, which is a hexagonal, two-dimensional crystal of carbon atoms. Single-atom-thick graphene sheets can now be produced by chemical vapour deposition1,2,3 on scales of up to metres4, making their polycrystallinity almost unavoidable. Theoretically, graphene grain boundaries are predicted to have distinct electronic5,6,7,8, magnetic9, chemical10 and mechanical11,12,13 properties that strongly depend on their atomic arrangement. Yet because of the five-order-of-magnitude size difference between grains and the atoms at grain boundaries, few experiments have fully explored the graphene grain structure. Here we use a combination of old and new transmission electron microscopy techniques to bridge these length scales. Using atomic-resolution imaging, we determine the location and identity of every atom at a grain boundary and find that different grains stitch together predominantly through pentagon–heptagon pairs. Rather than individually imaging the several billion atoms in each grain, we use diffraction-filtered imaging14 to rapidly map the location, orientation and shape of several hundred grains and boundaries, where only a handful have been previously reported15,16,17,18,19. The resulting images reveal an unexpectedly small and intricate patchwork of grains connected by tilt boundaries. By correlating grain imaging with scanning probe and transport measurements, we show that these grain boundaries severely weaken the mechanical strength of graphene membranes but do not as drastically alter their electrical properties. These techniques open a new window for studies on the structure, properties and control of grains and grain boundaries in graphene and other two-dimensional materials.

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The authors acknowledge discussions with M. Blees, J. Cha, S. Gerbode, J. Grazul, E. Kirkland, L. Fitting-Kourkoutis, O. Krivanek, S. Shi, S. Wang and H. Zhuang. This work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation through the Cornell Center for Materials Research and the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Initiative of the National Science Foundation under NSF Award EEC-0117770, 064654. Additional support was provided by the Army Research Office, CONACYT-Mexico, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, DARPA-MTO and the MARCO Focused Research Center on Materials, Structures, and Devices. Sample fabrication was performed at the Cornell node of the National Nanofabrication Infrastructure Network, funded by the NSF. Additional facilities support was provided by the Cornell Center for Materials Research (NSF DMR-0520404 and IMR-0417392) and NYSTAR.

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Author notes

    • Pinshane Y. Huang
    • , Carlos S. Ruiz-Vargas
    •  & Arend M. van der Zande

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. School of Applied and Engineering Physics, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

    • Pinshane Y. Huang
    • , Carlos S. Ruiz-Vargas
    • , Jonathan S. Alden
    • , Ye Zhu
    •  & David A. Muller
  2. Department of Physics, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

    • Arend M. van der Zande
    • , William S. Whitney
    •  & Paul L. McEuen
  3. Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

    • Mark P. Levendorf
    • , Shivank Garg
    •  & Jiwoong Park
  4. Department of Physics, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA

    • Joshua W. Kevek
  5. Department of Physics and Astronomy, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602, USA

    • Caleb J. Hustedt
  6. Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

    • Jiwoong Park
    • , Paul L. McEuen
    •  & David A. Muller


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P.Y.H., C.S.R.-V. and A.M.v.d.Z. contributed equally to this work. Electron microscopy and data analysis were carried out by P.Y.H. and D.A.M., with Y.Z. contributing to initial DF-TEM. Graphene growth and sample fabrication were done by A.M.v.d.Z. and C.S.R.-V. under the supervision of P.L.M. and J.P., aided by M.P.L., S.G., W.S.W., J.W.K., J.S.A. and C.J.H. AC-EFM, mobility measurements and analysis were done by A.M.v.d.Z. and P.L.M., aided by C.S.R.-V. and J.W.K. AFM mechanical testing and analysis were done by C.S.R.-V. and J.P., aided by S.G. All authors discussed the results and implications at all stages. P.Y.H, A.M.v.d.Z., C.S.R.-V., P.L.M., J.P. and D.A.M. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David A. Muller.

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