Low-power transistors hint at alternative to battery bonfires

Cambridge researchers envision electronics that thrive on a starvation diet

Since 1965, transistors have followed a path predicted by Gordon Moore, becoming more densely packed year after year. The result has been a steady improvement in CPU performance. Batteries, however, haven't advanced at the same pace.

As Fred Schlachter, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, put it in a 2013 research paper, "There is no Moore's Law for batteries."

That unfortunate fact has left researchers trying to squeeze ever more power into batteries, a chemistry challenge that doesn't always work out for the best, as can be seen from Samsung's Note 7 recall.

Schlachter's advice while we await battery breakthroughs was to focus on energy efficiency. Two researchers from Cambridge University have done just that.

In a paper published in Science, professors Sungsik Lee and Arokia Nathan describe a transistor design that works with minimal energy. The two researchers propose a way of making transistors that preserves the "Schottky barrier," which allows transistors to remain distinct when closely packed.

The Indium-Gallium-Zinc Oxide thin film transistors (TFTs), as described by the University of Cambridge, have the potential to enable a new range of devices through their parsimonious power sipping, such as wearable or implantable electronics that could harvest the energy they need from their environment.

Operating at less than a volt, with power consumption below a billionth of a watt, these transistors are extraordinarily energy efficient. They're designed to make use of a form of electrical leakage inherent to transistors known as near-off state current. Better still, these tiny electronic components can be manufactured at low temperatures and can be printed on a wide range of materials like glass, plastic, polyester, and paper.

"We're challenging conventional perception of how a transistor should be," professor Arokia Nathan of Cambridge's department of engineering, told the Cambridge news service.

"We've found that these Schottky barriers, which most engineers try to avoid, actually have the ideal characteristics for the type of ultralow-power applications we're looking at, such as wearable or implantable electronics for health monitoring." ®

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