New Transistor Uses Metal And Air Instead Of Semiconductors

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Early electronic devices used a spark gap. These have been almost completely replaced with tubes and then semiconductor devices such as transistors. However, transistors will soon reach a theoretical limit on how small they can be which is causing researchers to find the next thing. If the  Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has its way, we’ll go back to something that has more in common with a spark gap than a conventional transistor. You can find the source paper on the Nano Papers website although the text is behind a paywall.

The transistor uses metal, but instead of a semiconductor channel — which is packed with atoms that cause collisions as electrons flow through the channel — the new device uses an air gap. You might well think that if fewer atoms in the channel are better, why not use a vacuum?

You’d be right. The problem is, producing a device in a vacuum-sealed package would make the devices larger than conventional transistors. Instead, the new devices use a nanoscale gap between two metal points. The gap is so small the electrons can pass almost as freely as they do in a vacuum. How small is the gap? Just a few tens of nanometers.

Although some reports claim the devices don’t use any semiconductor material, in fact, the practical devices used a gate made of silicon underneath the channel. The source and drain are pointy pieces of metal where the points almost touch and the gate runs beneath the gap which is the channel.

Don’t get us wrong. The mechanism isn’t like that of a spark gap, instead it’s some kind of tunneling mechanism. But we couldn’t help but find it amusing that maybe electronics will again rely on magic air gaps. Like all the research you read about, you never know if this is the next big thing or a dead end. More likely, it’s a stepping stone that will lead to something even more amazing.

We’ve seen carbon nanotubes forming transistors. We’ve also seen new devices based on lubricant.

59 thoughts on “New Transistor Uses Metal And Air Instead Of Semiconductors

      1. _The Diamond Age_ by Neal Stephenson makes this exact prediction. And then, for literary completeness, makes the host society for the atomic scale difference engines and whatnot… neo-victorian

  1. I love the idea of tunneling mechanisms, first came across it a while back when looking at nuclear equations for Sol’s fusion. One cubic metre at core only produces 275Watts, you get more heat from the human body or a compost heap per cubic meter, 99% fusion H to He by tunneling. Points rather definitively to QM wave phenomena far more likely than overcoming electrostatic repulsion issues as if subatomic particles inviolate things like classcal billiard balls – evidence shows not the case.

    In respect of this article, thanks by the way, could we see devices which exploit the electrolytic type nonlinear conduction/dielectric effects of water and metals in experimental devices, then the water could be moderated such as the paradigm of cerebral spinal fluid doped with neurotransmitters. The corollary for electronics could well offer wide logic effects with other attributes akin to mood changes ;-)
    A fabrication lab in electrochemical proof of concept construction would be the ideal place to start.

      1. Its fairly obvious in qualitative oriented disciplines sure, here we are in quantitative fields and where emergence applies such as in patterns across energy scales. Case in point tunneling in respect of Sol’s fusion indicative as that paradigm shown to occur across physics and therefore into electronic devices of practical import. Its an area not well understood and points strongly to reappraisal of education in Physics – the flow on effects can be considerably advantageous by adopting a more successful world view. Snide facile attempts at prejudice as your annonymous example shows cant progress that useful path of education…

        1. It reads like a Markov chain to me. I can detect hints of interesting ideas there (replace the air with water, than the water with cerebrospinal fluid, then your processor can have “moods”) but it’s buried in so many levels of non sequiturs it’s essentially babble. The best ideas in the world are useless if you can’t communicate them.

          1. Geesh, it’s about recognising close comparability of the paradigms, don’t you get that :P (RQ – lol)
            Is it so essential to spoon feed people, when they should be able to imagine (incremental) divergence offered by my occasional introductory and considered thought bubbles. Sadly too many on too many forums suffer from combinations of; low attention span, habituation to being spoon fed, laziness, minimal exposure to vocabulary variations, lack of training in convergent dialectic or even simple propositional debating and let’s not forget nutrition eg widespread mineral deficiencies !
            Education is key in areas such as critical analysis along with frequent and welcomed challenges to illusions of certainties from traditional patterns of thinking along with appreciation that static constructs deep in most people’s comfort zones are far less reliable than ever before…

          2. So, what you do, essentially, is spout incomprehensible babble, then insult people for not seeing its true value and investing considerable time to interpret it. Interpret your own ideas, fool.

    1. ” One cubic metre at core only produces 275Watts”

      That’s the average power density. The fusion power at 19% radius is about 7 Watts per cubic meter, and right at the very core it’s probably thousands of watts. 99% of the Sun’s fusion power is produced within 24% of the radius.

      1. Incorrect Luke, here is my source of data as linked along with further references at bottom.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_core
        What is your source of data though it’s possible you misread an authoritative source or are you trying to find cracks with idle bickering like your other comment on nootropics ?
        As I’ve informed you before yet you can’t remember or jump on the fake news bandwagon – minor neural failing I guess ;-)
        I am not on nootropics, I don’t take pharmaceuticals. Might get high with red wine, tryptophans with specific food combinations caucasians have adapted too and trialling various mineral formulations which enhance, boost or correct earlier deficiencies which can affect the NMDA neural receptor some people rely on. Enough of that Luke, please add something useful, facile prejudice is obviously not your best skill or even any sort of admirable moral accomplishment :/

    2. Say what you want to about him, but Mike Massen is among a few commenters here, that can send me on a three hour web/wiki crawl.

      Now who’s got the skinny on those “nootropics” ?
      I’d love to be able to remember and usefully recall some some info from those tangential reading trips.

    1. Both the vacuum tube and the transistor were patented.

      And Darlington almost managed to patent the integrated circuit before it was officially invented, save for a slight difference in wording which made his patent on the coupled transistors too narrow.

      1. Patents tell you how to do it, more or less, and are freely available from various government offices. In exchange, the inventor is granted a monopoly on the idea for business purposes and for a limited time.

        They’re kinda the opposite of paywalls.

          1. Ah well ‘we’ do have functional Atomic Force Deposition (AFD) as trialled well with all sorts of interesting results within the electron microscopy field at a few places around the globe and a topic of active discussion on various forums too though not on a grand scale yet ;-) but, it’s very slow, as so far single point to point – imagine the extruder side and positioning, need a 10 tonne granite slab !
            Shouldn’t be that difficult though to array it with a suitable applicator either single pass or limited number of multiple passes with aperture selection ah lah Gerber format which of course would likely need AFD to fabricate that aperture in the very first place. So make/acquire your own AFD, use it to make arrayed apertures and “multiplied multiplicity” goes forth as per 3D printing the printer and voila another capital raising exercise – who is game to go down that path early on and shows signs of that and has the capital at the ready in cash, can we guess :P
            Then in maybe 5 years or so AFD fabrication kits might enter the high end hobbyist fields with great fodder around that time or just before in the hackaday sphere with all the fruity additions and comments most seem so well accustomed too :D

    2. It’s the American Chemical Society web site, publishers of many of the major journals in that field.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Chemical_Society#Journals_and_magazines
      The list of publications is followed by a discussion of the paywall.
      Those of us who did our research pre-internet will remember the days when all publication was in paid-for journals. Your university library would pay the annual subscriptions and a stack of all the latest research would arrive on piles of dead trees every month.
      So, up to about 1998 _every_ major scientific advance was published behind a paywall. Though typically the payment was made by the institution you worked for, or the library you were a member of.

      Bodies such as the ACS need some form of income to pay for the publication costs, staff, editors and peer-review process.

      1. ACS is a professional society that collects dues from members. Peer review is done pro bono by experts in the field. While editor’s may get veto power or control the layout, they do very little in the way of editing papers.
        20,000 usd Journal subscriptions are becoming harder to justify in the age of electronic publishing.

    1. Gate contacts are 54 nm apart in leading edge volume manufacturing processes, 44-48 nm next year. Gate length is ~10 nm, channel width is ~20-30 nm. Air gap (= gate length) alone mentioned in this work is longer.

    2. Thats a very difficult question to answer. How big is a banana is pretty much the same. “It depends”.

      And do they mean tens (as in 20 or 30 nanometer?) or tenths (as in 0.2 or 0.3 nm). In the first case the pitch (transistor to transistor) distance becomes more important when comparing to the current tech. At the moment feature pitch is usually around 30 to 40 nanometers AFAIK for the big players like Intel, TSMC and Global Foundries.

        1. @John Pak
          Ah well ‘we’ do have functional Atomic Force Deposition (AFD) as trialled well with all sorts of interesting results within the electron microscopy field at a few places around the globe and a topic of active discussion on various forums too though not on a grand scale yet ;-) but, it’s very slow, as so far single point to point – imagine the extruder side and positioning, need a 10 tonne granite slab !
          Shouldn’t be that difficult though to array it with a suitable applicator either single pass or limited number of multiple passes with aperture selection ah lah Gerber format which of course would likely need AFD to fabricate that aperture in the very first place. So make/acquire your own AFD, use it to make arrayed apertures and “multiplied multiplicity” goes forth as per 3D printing the printer and voila another capital raising exercise – who is game to go down that path early on and shows signs of that and has the capital at the ready in cash, can we guess :P
          Then in maybe 5 years or so AFD fabrication kits might enter the high end hobbyist fields with great fodder around that time or just before in the hackaday sphere with all the fruity additions and comments most seem so well accustomed too :D

          NB. Reply url loused up, went to wrong comment, reported it so hope it’s deleted.
          Odd things on new Android tablet, need to double check autocorrect too…

      1. Are you saying that lengths less than the noise floor of the standard cannot be measured in meters? That’s ridiculous. You can define a meter any way you want, then subdivide it using suitable methods.

  2. If the future of the human race is in space, I can almost picture it:
    hal9000: “Dave, turn the oxygen back on Dave”.
    dave: “I’m sorry Hal, I’m afraid I can’t do that!”

  3. Maybe i’m just getting old but I keep finding myself pretty amazed at what modern electronics is actually doing. I mean, we’re building things by the handfuls of individual atoms, it’s crazy when you think about it.

        1. I made “i” volatile, so compiler doesn’t optimize it. I wanted to show how fast computers today are. 4294967295 iterations in 7sec is rather fast. I’ve started with amiga, where that time would be more like 5 hours.

    1. I’d imagine not, but I can’t explain why. Maybe someone smarter than I could explain it.
      My guess would be that as component size decreases, the more fragile components become to electric charges outside of their operating range.

    2. An electromagnetic pulse damages by the local electromagnetic field exceeding the breakdown voltage of the dielectric. The downside for this design is that vacuum and air have the worst breakdown voltages of any intentional dielectrics, so they’ll arc over way before, say, silicon dioxide. The upside is that they recover as soon as the field has reduced: you don’t blow a hole in them with the arc like you do with, say, silicon dioxide. That’s where it gets complicated. When you have an arc between metal layers across a semiconductor insulator, the metal will often migrate and fill the hole and then you have a short (and then that’ll overheat so badly it’ll make the local material vaporize and you blow a big hole in the silicon.) There might be metal migration when a vacuum gap semiconductor arcs, and there’s likely to be metal movement of some sort, which would change the tip geometry and distance. The distance is critical for this, so it probably would not survive an arc.

  4. So what’s new? The blurb both here and over there (MIT) doesn’t say what makes this different from previous vacuum channel transistors, well, except those called the gap vacuum instead of air.
    Is it manufacturability? Materials? Decrease of the gap distance? Neither of those allows calling this type of transistor new.

  5. I despair of popular technical publications that get excited over press releases. Besides this one, there were the people who claimed to have solved the problem of light antennas with carbon nanotubes, and were going to make 90% efficient solar panels. IMO all of these sort of releases should be filtered by their distance from real products, which is probably astronomical.

    1. Why? Science is about reproducible results, not reproducible products. If the latter can be achieved (usually by selling the patent)* then you see products latter. Not because someone published a paper, but did all the hard work making it a product. So the only filtering should be in the educated thinking cap we put on, asking what more is needed to make a product? Those with labs than can reproduce the work probably already have a clue.

      *This is how universities get the money to continue further research.

    2. Seconded. Magical new breakthrough battery technologies allegedly fully demonstrated in the lab, in particular, come up so often only to never ever be heard about again that there could probably be an ad on this very page selling month-lasting phone batteries for $0.99 a dozen right now and I’d just wave it away with “yeah come back in ‘ten years’ when you have an actual product I can buy” out of sheer habit. And anyone who wants something closer to home feel free to fetch me a handful of those miraculous new memristor-based disks (also perpetually ‘ten years’ away) before bothering to let me know what an idiot I am for not falling for fluff that doesn’t even qualify as vaporware. Do you have any idea who this bloke called “Edison” is? No, he’s not the guy who invented a lightbulb. He’s the guy YOU COULD BUY ONE FROM.

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