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Efficiency boosts transistor speed: new device mixes high-performance, low-energy approaches.

Combining the engines of a Ferrari and a Honda Civic would not lead to a fast, fuel-efficient car. Yet the simple trick of coupling a power-sipping transistor to a high-speed one has created a transistor that excels in both categories without any obvious weaknesses.

"This is a great advancement," says Adrian Ionescu, a nanoelectronics engineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The new transistor could soon find its way into the flash memory chips that store data in computers, tablets and smartphones, Ionescu says.

Transistors, particularly a variety called metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors, or MOSFETs, are building blocks of the electronic age. They have gates that rapidly open and close to control the flow of electric current within microprocessors and memory chips.

The gates of current MOSFETs are so thin--just several atoms wide that electrons can burrow through via a phenomenon called quantum tunneling. Scientists have harnessed these tunneling electrons in flash memory chips, but the process requires a lot of energy, most of which goes to waste. "The main showstopper in consumer electronics is power consumption," Ionescu says.

Since 2001, microelectronics engineer Peng-Fei Wang at Fudan University in Shanghai has worked to integrate another type of transistor called a tunneling field-effect transistor, or TFET, into mainstream electronics. This relatively new technology cannot compete with MOSFETs for speed, but it can function on very small amounts of energy.

In the Aug. 9 Science, Wang and colleagues describe how they built a modified MOSFET with an embedded TFET. Like other MOSFETs used in flash memory, the new transistor exploits quantum tunneling electrons, but the presence of the TFET allows it to run on very little energy. Low power consumption translates to high speed because it takes less time for the circuit to build up to the energy threshold required for the transistor to work.

Wang's team says that the transistors remain reliable for a quadrillion operations, a billion times as efficient as existing technology.

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Title Annotation:Matter & Energy
Author:Grant, Andrew
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 7, 2013
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