By 2017, quantum physics will help reduce the energy consumption of our computers and cellular phones by up to a factor of 100. For research and industry, the power consumption of transistors is a key issue. The next revolution will likely come from tunnel-FET, a technology that takes advantage of a phenomenon referred to as “quantum tunneling.” At the EPFL, but also in the laboratories of IBM Zurich and the CEA-Leti in France, research is well underway.
Power dissipation is a fundamental problem for nanoelectronic circuits. Scaling the supply voltage reduces the energy needed for switching, but the field-effect transistors (FETs) in today’s integrated circuits require at least 60 mV of gate voltage to increase the current by one order of magnitude at room temperature. Tunnel FETs avoid this limit by using quantum-mechanical band-to-band tunnelling, rather than thermal injection, to inject charge carriers into the device channel. Tunnel FETs based on ultrathin semiconducting films or nanowires could achieve a 100-fold power reduction over complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) transistors, so integrating tunnel FETs with CMOS technology could improve low-power integrated circuits.
Transistors that exploit a quantum quirk
Today’s computers have no less than a billion transistors in the CPU alone. These small switches that turn on and off provide the famous binary instructions, the 0s and 1s that let us send emails, watch videos, move the mouse pointer… and much more. The technology used in today’s transistors is called “field effect;” whereby voltage induces an electron channel that activates the transistor. But field effect technology is approaching its limits, particularly in terms of power consumption.
Tunnel-FET technology is based on a fundamentally different principle. In the transistor, two chambers are separated by an energy barrier. In the first, a horde of electrons awaits while the transistor is deactivated. When voltage is applied, they cross the energy barrier and move into the second chamber, activating the transistor in so doing.
In the past, the tunnel effect was known to disrupt the operation of transistors. According to quantum theory, some electrons cross the barrier, even if they apparently don’t have enough energy to do so. By reducing the width of this barrier, it becomes possible to amplify and take advantage of the quantum effect – the energy needed for the electrons to cross the barrier is drastically reduced, as is power consumption in standby mode.
Mass production is imminent
“By replacing the principle of the conventional field effect transistor by the tunnel effect, one can reduce the voltage of transistors from 1 volt to 0.2 volts,” explains Ionescu. In practical terms, this decrease in electrical tension will reduce power consumption by up to a factor of 100. The new generation microchips will combine conventional and tunnel-FET technology. “The current prototypes by IBM and the CEA-Leti have been developed in a pre-industrial setting. We can reasonably expect to see mass production by around 2017.”
Other Low Power technologies – memristors and photonics