Ever shrinking transistors are the key to faster and more efficient computer processing. Since the 1970s, advancements in electronics have largely been driven by the steady pace with which these tiny components have grown simultaneously smaller and more powerful—right down to their current dimensions on the nanometer scale. But recent years have seen this progress plateau, as researchers grapple with whether transistors may have finally hit their size limit. High among the list of hurdles standing in the way of further miniaturization: problems caused by “leakage current.”
Leakage current results when the gap between two metal electrodes narrows to the point that electrons are no longer contained by their barriers, a phenomenon known as quantum mechanical tunnelling. As the gap continues to decrease, this tunnelling conduction increases at an exponentially higher rate, rendering further miniaturization extremely challenging. Scientific consensus has long held that vacuum barriers represent the most effective means to curtail tunnelling, making them the best overall option for insulating transistors. However, even vacuum barriers can allow for some leakage due to quantum tunnelling.
In a highly interdisciplinary collaboration, researchers across Columbia Engineering, Columbia University Department of Chemistry, Shanghai Normal University, and the University of Copenhagen have upended conventional wisdom, synthesizing the first molecule capable of insulating at the nanometer scale more effectively than a vacuum barrier. Their findings are published online today in Nature.
“We’ve reached the point where it’s critical for researchers to develop creative solutions for redesigning insulators. Our molecular strategy represents a new design principle for classic devices, with the potential to support continued miniaturization in the near term,” said Columbia Engineering physicist and co-author Latha Venkataraman, who heads the lab where researcher Haixing Li conducted the project’s experimental work. Molecular synthesis was carried out in the Colin Nuckolls Lab at Columbia’s Department of Chemistry, in partnership with Shengxiong Xiao at Shanghai Normal University.