Many feats of engineering boil down to a material's ability to switch between two different states. For example, transistors rely on switching between conditions with differing electrical conductivity and photonic devices change the amount of light that can pass through a material. More complex devices can arise if the so-called bistable material undergoes changes in more than one physical property as it switches between states. The burgeoning field of spintronics, for example, involves simultaneous shifts in both the magnetic and the electrical properties of a material. Now scientists have succeeded in making a material that goes one step further and exhibits bistability involving three physical properties. The findings, published today in the journal Science, could lead to the development of new types of electronic devices.

Robert Haddon and his colleagues at the Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University of California at Riverside manufactured the organic material hoping it would have novel conductivity properties. But when they began testing the compound, they uncovered its hidden talents. "When our material switches between states, it switches the conductivity, the amount of light transmitted, and the magnetism," Haddon explains. "Our material, as far as we know, is the first organic compound that combines all three." According to the report, the changes occur at around 62 degrees Celsius, which is higher than the room temperature requirement for potential applications. But the team concludes that slight changes to the basic molecular building block could change the temperature range over which the switching takes place.

The new material still lacks a name, but not possibility. The authors propose that it could potentially form the basis for new electronic devices in which different physical properties are used for writing, reading and transferring information.