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Researchers at Infineon say they have built the first power semiconductor made from nanotubes. Nano scale parts were thought to be too weak to withstand the high voltages and currents used in power applications, but the team has demonstrated a nanotube switch that can control LEDs or electric motors.

Power semiconductors are made primarily of silicon, and their production process is complex and expensive. According to Infineon nanotubes will make it possible to produce power switches that are much smaller and cheaper to build.

Scientists have been able to build low power transistors with nanotubes for some time. Power transistors require significantly higher voltages: up to 1000 times greater, Infineon says.

The researchers demonstrated that when hundreds or thousands of carbon nanotubes are packed together in parallel, they can also function as power transistors. Infineon’s prototype, which is made of around 300 nanotubes, can switch LEDs and small electric motors at a voltage of 2.5 volts. These are used when energy is at a premium, or when mechanical components need to be eliminated.

The researchers list many advantages carbon nanotubes have over traditional silicon: significantly simpler manufacturing process, higher switching speeds and reduced heat development in the high current densities the tightly packed carbon tubes can handle.

The team said the work is still very much at a research stage, and could not say when products made this way will go into commercial production. ®

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