To cram ever more computing power into your pocket, engineers need to come up with increasingly ingenious ways to add transistors to an already crowded space.
Unfortunately there’s a limit to how small you can make a wire. But a twisted form of rare earth metal just might have what it takes to push the boundaries a little further.
A team of researchers funded by the US Army have discovered a way to turn twisted nanowires of one of the rarest of rare earth metals, tellurium, into a material with just the right properties that make it an ideal transistor at just a couple of nanometres across.
“This tellurium material is really unique,” says Peide Ye, an electrical engineer from Purdue University.
“It builds a functional transistor with the potential to be the smallest in the world.”
Transistors are the work horse of anything that computes information, using tiny changes in charge to prevent or allow larger currents to flow.
Typically made of semiconducting materials, they can be thought of as traffic intersections for electrons. A small voltage change in one place opens the gate for current to flow, serving as both a switch and an amplifier.
Combinations of open and closed switches are the physical units representing the binary language underpinning logic in computer operations. As such, the more you have in one spot, the more operations you can run.
Ever since the first chunky transistor was prototyped a little more than 70 years ago, a variety of methods and novel materials have led to regular downsizing of the transistor.