Nov. 19 (UPI) -- Electrical engineers have developed a new type of transistor capable of sending electrons across tiny gaps of air instead of silicon. The development negates the need for a semiconductor, making the device faster and less likely to overheat.
Researchers used the breakthrough to develop a proof-of-concept design for a nanochip featuring a combination of metal and narrow air gaps. The team of engineers detailed their invention in the journal Nano Letters.
"Every computer and phone has millions to billions of electronic transistors made from silicon, but this technology is reaching its physical limits where the silicon atoms get in the way of the current flow, limiting speed and causing heat," Shruti Nirantar, researcher at RMIT University, said in a news release. "Our air channel transistor technology has the current flowing through air, so there are no collisions to slow it down and no resistance in the material to produce heat."
Over the last decade-plus, the power and efficiency of computer chips has roughly doubled every two years as engineers find new ways to squeeze more and more transistors onto silicon chips. But transistors are now smaller than the most minuscule viruses, and technologists say there is a limit to how much smaller they can get.
In other words, there is a wall or ceiling for silicon-based electronics, and engineers are already approaching it. Air-based nanochips could offer researchers access to a new paradigm in nano electronics.
"This technology simply takes a different pathway to the miniaturisation of a transistor in an effort to uphold Moore's Law for several more decades," Shruti said.
According to the new research, the proof-of-concept design avoids one of the problems with traditional solid channel transistors: too many atoms. Instead of using vacuum packing to make transistors less dense -- which would have added too much physical bulk to the technology -- researchers deployed a narrow air gap.
"The gap is only a few tens of nanometers, or 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, but it's enough to fool electrons into thinking that they are travelling through a vacuum and re-create a virtual outer-space for electrons within the nanoscale air gap," researcher Sharath Sriram said.
Researchers think their device will be easily integratabtle with current electronic technologies.
"This is a step towards an exciting technology which aims to create something out of nothing to significantly increase speed of electronics and maintain pace of rapid technological progress," Sriram said.