Tiny Tech #3: The Single-Electron Transistor

Today from the world of Tiny Tech:

Transistors are everywhere:  in computers, in cell phones, and even in those gimmicky greeting cards that play tunes when they’re opened. One reason transistors are useful is because they can be rapidly switched “on” and “off” to generate the ones and zeros that are a computer’s binary code. When they were first invented in the 1940s, transistors were the size of a postage stamp, but today they are so small that 30 million of them could fit on the head of a pin. 

Now, scientists and engineers are working to make even smaller transistors, because smaller transistors mean greater processing power and lower energy consumption.  Very likely, the smallest possible transistor is something called a single-electron transistor, which – as its name suggests – operates by manipulating a single electron.  A voltage is applied across a pair of electrodes to create a tiny region that can trap electrons.  As the voltage is varied, single electrons can be coaxed into and out of the trap, thus causing the transistor to turn from on to off, or from off to on.

Single electron transistors may someday be used in everyday objects.  In the meantime, they are fascinating because the movement of a single electron is the smallest possible electrical current.  Well, what do you expect from “current” research?

Tiny Tech is made possible by the National Science Foundation and WUFT.  To learn more about Tiny Tech, go to tinytechradio.org.

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