Manipulating heat conduction is an appealing thermophysical problem with enormous practical implications, which requires insight into the lattice dynamics. Although lone-pair electrons have long been proposed to induce strong phonon anharmonicity, no direct evidence is available from a fundamental point of view and the electronic origin still remains untouched. Besides, strain engineering is one of the most promising and effective routes towards continuously tuning the thermal transport properties of materials due to the flexibility and robustness. However, previous studies mainly focused on quantifying how the thermal conductivity is affected by strain, while the fundamental understanding on the electronic origin of why the thermal conductivity can be modulated by mechanical strain has yet to be explored.
In this study, we perform comparative study of thermal transport in two-dimensional group III-nitrides (h-BN, h-AlN, h-GaN) and graphene. Although the monolayer group III-nitrides possess similar planar honeycomb structure with graphene, their thermal conductivity is substantially lower and the root reason cannot be intuitively attributed to the mass difference. We then establish a microscopic picture to connect phonon anharmonicity and lone-pair electrons. Direct evidence is provided for the interaction between lone-pair electrons and bonding electrons of adjacent atoms based on the analysis of orbital-projected electronic structures, which demonstrates how nonlinear restoring forces arise from atomic motions and lead to strong phonon anharmonicity. The microscopic picture of lone-pair electrons driving strong phonon anharmonicity provides coherent understanding of the diverse thermal transport properties of the monolayer group III-nitrides compared to graphene. Furthermore, the thermal conductivity (κ) of planar monolayer group III-nitrides is unexpectedly enlarged by up to one order of magnitude with bilateral tensile strain applied, which is in sharp contrast to the strain induced κ reduction in graphene despite their similar planar honeycomb structure. The anomalous positive response of κ to tensile strain is attributed to the attenuated interaction between the lone-pair s electrons around N atoms and the bonding electrons of neighboring (B/Al/Ga) atoms, which reduces phonon anharmonicity. The microscopic picture for the lone-pair electrons driving phonon anharmonicity established from the fundamental level of electronic structure deepens our understanding of phonon transport in 2D materials and would also have great impact on future research in micro-/nanoscale thermal transport such as materials design with targeted thermal transport properties.