What is a Nanotransistor?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Transistors are the fundamental building blocks of most electronics, including all computers and radios. A nanotransistor is a transistor whose dimensions are measured in nanometers. For instance, a transistor with a diameter of 300 nanometers (billionths of a meter) would be a nanotransistor. Transistors are used for switching and amplifying electronic signals. When combined in the millions and billions, they can be used to create sophisticated programmable information processors, more commonly known as computers. Computing and communications companies invest hundreds of millions of dollars in research funds every year to develop smaller transistors.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

Miniaturizing the transistor has been the hallmark of 50 years of progress in smaller computers. In a trend known as Moore's law, the number of transistors that engineers have been able to fit on a chip of fixed size has consistently doubled every 18 to 24 months. Thus, the entire history of computing has consisted of many dozens of doublings. Unfortunately for the computing industry, however, this trend cannot be maintained forever -- the tiny size of current transistors is starting to run up against the laws of physics.

Efforts to fabricate a smaller nanotransistor are a push to fulfill Moore's law and providing better and faster electronics to customers. Conventional photolithography offers limits to how small a nanotransistor can be fabricated, so new approaches are being attempted, including using microbes and slow chemical vapour deposition to synthesize transistor components. The effort to make nanotransistors is on the forefront of nanotechnology.

In November 2001, Bell Labs scientists made a major step forward in efforts towards smaller nanotransistors with their fabrication of individually-addressable nanotransistors at the scale of an individual molecule. These devices are so tiny that about 10 million could fit on the head of a pin. The challenge of creating tiny electrodes for these transistors was solved using self-assembly -- putting together molecules in a certain mix that causes them to combine together and self-assemble without direct engineer intervention. Unfortunately however, this approach is still experimental and is not viable for mass manufacturing yet.

In January 2008, another milestone in the development of nanotransistors was made by scientists at the University of Illinois, when they constructed a nanotransistor radio whose active components are exclusively made from carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are extremely flexible materials with unparalleled strength and usefulness in electronics.

Because nanotransistors are so small, their behavior cannot be entirely described by current theories. Therefore, efforts have been ongoing to develop new theories that can be applied to the nanoscale.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime EasyTechJunkie contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


@SkyWhisperer - Personally, while I like the idea of smaller and smaller computers, I don’t like them simply because they’re small. After all, how much smaller than a cell phone do you have to get before the computer simply becomes impractical for personal use?

I’m more interested in some of the stories I’ve heard about how the technology will be used in the health field. I’ve heard it said that one day doctors will have access to computerized drugs that flow into your bloodstream, and deliver drugs to your system or perform surgical operations like blasting through blood clots.

These things sounds like fantasy for now, but if the discoveries made in nanotechnology continue at a steady clip, I think these things will be just around the corner. Those are the breakthroughs that I am really hoping for.


@NathanG - Well, I certainly don’t understand quantum mechanics, and I don’t think most of the scientists working on nanotechnology completely understand it either. However, I do agree that nanotechnology is uncharted territory.

I think it will take awhile before scientists move a lot of these miniature devices out of the labs and into the mass market of consumer products. However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t made some headway. Already computer chip manufacturers like Intel are investing billions of dollars into new kinds of computer chips made up of nanotransistors.

I don’t know much about the physics of the new chips. I anticipate that the first roll outs of this technology will be more of a hybrid of current technology with the new technology, just as we do with hybrid automobiles for example.


I was particularly struck by the article’s mention of the fact that it’s impossible to describe the behavior of nanotransistors, using current theories anyway.

While I am not a scientist myself, I wonder if this has something to do with the so called conflict between regular physics and quantum mechanics.

I watched a show on television that described how that physics as we know it, in the visible physical world, operates differently than physics at the quantum level, or the invisible world. This has been a barrier to creating a “grand unified” theory of physics which explains everything.

Are nanotransistors operating at the quantum level? If so, I imagine it would be difficult to figure out how to use them unless we fully understand quantum physics as well.

Post your comments
Forgot password?