The study of topological insulators has generally involved search of materials that have this property as an innate quality, distinct from normal insulators. Here we focus on the possibility of converting a normal insulator into a topological one by application of an external electric field that shifts different bands by different energies and induces a specific band inversion, which leads to a topological state. Phosphorene is a two-dimensional (2D) material that can be isolated through mechanical exfoliation from layered black phosphorus, but unlike graphene and silicene, single-layer phosphorene has a large band gap (1.5-2.2 eV). Thus, it was unsuspected to exhibit band inversion and the ensuing topological insulator behavior. Using first-principles calculations with applied perpendicular electric field F⊥ on few-layer phosphorene we predict a continuous transition from the normal insulator to a topological insulator and eventually to a metal as a function of F⊥. The tuning of topological behavior with electric field would lead to spin-separated, gapless edge states, that is, quantum spin Hall effect. This finding opens the possibility of converting normal insulating materials into topological ones via electric field and making a multifunctional "field effect topological transistor" that could manipulate simultaneously both spin and charge carrier. We use our results to formulate some design principles for looking for other 2D materials that could have such an electrical-induced topological transition.
Keywords: black phosphorus; density functional theory; electric field; phosphorene; spin hall transistor; topological insulator.