Material Thin as an Atom Makes Tiniest Transistor

Researchers have fashioned the world’s smallest transistor out of a one-atom-thick layer of graphene that’s also less than 50 atoms wide. The minuscule graphene-based transistor may be the breakthrough that leads to faster microprocessors, ultimately replacing silicon, which becomes unstable at sizes ten times larger than graphene.

A key element in the creation of faster computer processors is the ability to cram more and more transistors into a smaller and smaller footprint. According to Moore’s law, researchers should be able to double the number of transistors and processing power every two years, but the pace of innovation has been hitting speed bumps and potential barriers on the semiconductor industry road map.

Graphene, which is a gauze of carbon atoms resembling chicken wire, was first discovered years ago, but prototypes leaked energy or were difficult to keep stable at such a small size.

“We clearly are at a premanufacturing phase, and that means they may not be able to find a way to mass produce this,” Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. “But creating very small processors that don’t leak, which has been a major problem with small processors, is critical for allowing the continued advancement of microprocessors, which are starting to reach size limitations. This is core to Moore’s law and this law is what still drives much of the technology segment.”

Challenges Remain

The discovery was made by researchers at the University of Manchester, who revealed the details of the transistors in the March issue of Nature Materials. One of difficulties researchers face is finding a consistent way to size and produce graphene.

“At the present time, no technology can cut individual elements with nanometer precision. We have to rely on chance by narrowing our ribbons to a few nanometers in width,” said project leader Leonid Ponomarenko, a research associate in the University of Manchester’s School of Physics and Astronomy. “Some of them were too wide and did not work properly, whereas others were over-cut and broken.”

Still, Ponomarenko says he is optimistic that the graphene proof-of-concept transistor technique can be scaled up. The research team also hopes to confine graphene to a single ring of carbon atoms, but acknowledges that graphene-based circuits are unlikely to “come of age” before 2025. Until then, silicon technology should remain the dominant base of microprocessor technology.

Just Another Breakthrough?

Despite the mind-boggling achievement of a functional processor that’s only a single atom thick, this new breakthrough may never end up in a modern computer.

“It’s not that the work is unimportant,” Gordon Haff, principal IT advisor and analyst for Illuminata, told TechNewsWorld. “Indeed, collectively, it’s of great importance to keep IT and the modern world advancing; however, individually, most research ‘breakthroughs’ will never see the light of a commercial product or will be but a small part of ultimate — and far distant — commercialization.”

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