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The world's smallest transistor is 1nm long, physics be damned

The world's smallest transistor is 1nm long, physics be damned

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Intel 22nm Haswell Die
Intel 22nm Haswell Die

Transistor size is an important part of improving computer technology. The smaller your transistors, the more you can fit on a chip, and the faster and more efficient your processor can be. That's why it's such big news that a team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has successfully built a functional 1 nanometer long transistor gate, which the lab claims is smallest working transistor ever made.

For years, the computing industry has been governed by Moore’s Law, which states that the the number of transistors in a semiconductor circuit doubles every two years. Current generation technology uses 14nm scale technology, with 10nm semiconductors anticipated for release in 2017 or 2018 with products like Intel’s Cannonlake line.

looking to the future, Moore’s law starts to run into trouble

But looking to the future, Moore’s law starts to run into trouble. And by trouble, I mean the laws of physics. You see, while the 7nm node is technically possible to produce with silicon, after that point you reach problems, where silicon transistors smaller than 7nm become so physically close together that electrons experience quantum tunneling. So instead of staying in the intended logic gate, the electrons can continuously flow from one gate to the next, essentially making it impossible for the transistors to have an off state.

Sujay Desai/UC Berkeley

And while companies like Intel had originally announced that they would be exploring other materials for producing 7nm semiconductors and beyond, the Berkeley Lab research team has beaten them to the punch, using carbon nanotubes and molybdenum disulfide (MoS2 ) to create a sub–7nm transistor. The MoS2 functions as the semiconductor, with the hollow carbon nanotube functioning as the gate to control the flow of electrons.

The research here is still in very early stages

That said, the research here is still in very early stages. At 14nm, a single die has over a billion transistors on it, and the Berkley Lab team has yet to develop a viable method to mass produce the new 1nm transistors or even developed a chip using them. But as a proof of concept alone, the results here are still important – that new materials can continue to allow smaller transistor sizes, and with it increased power and efficiency for the computers of the future.