To make working transistors, the researchers laid down lines of aluminum using a lithography technique. These wires serve as the gates that turn the transistors on and off. They then oxidized the aluminum to form a thin aluminum oxide layer on top of the wires, which acts as both a dielectric and the material to which the nanotubes will bind. After applying carbon nanotubes in solution and allowing them to bind to the aluminum oxide, the researchers deposited palladium leads perpendicular to the aluminum/aluminum oxide wires. These leads crossed over the nanotubes, becoming the source and drain of the transistor.
While developing this method of organizing nanotube transistors is an important step, much work remains to be done before commercial processors will be available. For one thing, exploiting the full potential of nanotube transistors will require improving the leads, possibly by using nanotubes in place of the palladium wires.
But perhaps a more pressing problem is finding reliable and inexpensive ways to isolate different types of carbon nanotubes. Current fabrication techniques produce a mix of nanotubes with different sizes and electronic properties, not all of which will work well in integrated circuits.
Because of these challenges, the first applications of carbon nanotube transistors will probably not be as high-performance processors, Hannon says, but highly sensitive sensors that work even with a mix of different nanotubes.