Are carbon nanotube transistors the future of microprocessors?

For years, engineers have attempted to harness the properties of carbon nanotubes to produce high-performance electronics that consume less energy. If successful, these carbon nanotubes could lead to faster wireless communication, longer battery life and high-speed processing speed for devices.

However, challenges have hindered the development of such transistors. As a result, their performance has been left behind by much more efficient transistors made up of silicon and gallium arsenide, which have been used in personal electronics and computer chips.

Now, for the very first time, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed carbon nanotube transistors that exceed the performance of advanced silicon transistors. The huge breakthrough may forever change how microprocessors are produced.

Carbon Outperforms Silicon

Carbon nanotubes have long been considered a promising material for the future of transistors. In theory, these materials should be able to perform five times faster than silicon transistors. The ultra-small dimension of the nanotube also allows it to rapidly change a current sign traveling across it.

However, engineers have struggled to isolate purely carbon nanotubes. This is important because impurities often act like copper wires and interrupt the semiconducting properties — like a short in an electronic device.

In the new study, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers used polymers to select the semiconducting nanotubes. By doing so, they achieved a solution of ultra-high-purity semiconductor carbon nanotubes.

"We've identified specific conditions in which you can get rid of nearly all metallic nanotubes, where we have less than 0.01 percent metallic nanotubes," says Michael Arnold, a professor at the university and one of the lead researchers of the study.

Arnold and colleagues compared their carbon nanotube transistor against one silicon transistor of the same size, leakage current and geometry. In the end, they saw that the carbon nanotube transistors achieved a current that was 1.9 times higher than most silicon transistors.

The Future Of Electronics?

Arnold says the team's achievement has long been a dream of nanotechnology for the last two decades. He says such a big milestone is a crucial advancement in the use of carbon nanotubes for high-speed communications, logic and other electronic technologies.

Furthermore, the carbon nanotube transistors could someday replace silicon transistors and offer bigger gains that the computer industry can rely on. Researchers say the transistors are especially promising for wireless communication technologies that depend on a lot of current that flow across a small area.

In the meantime, the team is currently working on adapting the device to match the geometry in silicon transistors. They have patented the new technology through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

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