LONDON Researchers at the University of Manchester, working with a group at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, claim to have created transistors that are just one atom-thick and less than 50 atoms wide from a new class of material.
The substance, dubbed graphene, is described as a two-dimensional material that exhibits exceptionally high crystal and electronic quality, and the researchers claim has numerous potential applications in condensed matter physics and electronics.
Described in this week's issue of Nature Materials the researchers say the transistor was made from the relatively new class of carbon allotrope that "represents a conceptually new class of materials that are only one atom thick" and could lead to high-speed devices so small that only one electron can pass through at once.
Crucially, the transistor operates at room temperature making it potentially viable for future electronic components.
The team is led by Professor Andre Geim of the Manchester Centre for Mesoscience and Nanotechnology, who suggests that future electronic circuits could could be carved out of a single sheet graphene.
Such circuits would include the central element, or "quantum dot", semitransparent barriers to control the movement of individual electrons, interconnects and logic gates all made entirely of graphene.
He added the group has made "proof of concept" devices and that the researchers believe the technology transfer process to other areas should be relatively straightforward. The real challenge , he suggests, is to make such membranes cheap and readily available for large-scale applications.
The researchers say for the moment, the definition of the images provided by electron microscopes is limited by the thickness of the material that the sample molecules rest on. The thinness of graphene membranes is such that the electrons would have much less irrelevant material to pass through and so be able to give a clearer picture of the structure of molecules.
They suggest graphene membranes could eventually replace silicon because they have the potential to be a far more effective transistor. Used as a transistor, essentially a switch that stops or lets in an electric current, they have proved to be faster than silicon and use less power.
The single-electron transistor described by the group is said to have a controlling gate electrode that is capacitively coupled to an electrode called the island, which sits between the source and the drain. At a certain voltage the island forms what's known as a Coulomb blockade, preventing an electron in the source quantum mechanically tunneling through to the island and then through to the drain. Apply a positive voltage to the gate, and the electron is free to pass from source to island to drain.
The design is not only very small, but the tiny voltages required to switch it on and off make it very sensitive, to the extent that it's seen as a possible fast yet low-power successor to today's chip transistors.
The researchers note that past attempts to create a single-electron transistor have used more standard semiconductor materials, all of which have needed cooling to near absolute zero to operate. The graphene single-electron transistor operates at room temperature.
They caution there is still some way to go to create a working chip from graphene single-electron transistors, with etching being a particular area for future work.
Professor Geim indicated graphene based circuits would not come of age before 2025 and till then silicon based devices would predominate.
But the researchers say the technology has managed to progress steadily from millimetre-sized transistors to current microprocessors with individual elements down to ten nanometres, and that the next logical step is true nanometre-sized circuits.