Register for an account


Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.


Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.


#90: Slick Materials Could Lead to Super Electronics

By Andrew GrantDecember 16, 2010 6:00 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Score another point for the physicists who have been working to make our electronic devices continually smaller and faster. The wires inside such devices are now so thin that electrons sometimes have trouble passing through them: A microscopic bump can seem like Mount Everest in a copper strand one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair.

But last year a group of researchers at Prince­ton University revealed materials whose surfaces allow electrons to move unimpeded past pesky obstacles. These intriguing materials, called topological insulators, do not allow electrons to pass through (hence the “insulator” part of their name), but their surfaces have proved to be outstanding at shuttling electrons along.

In a study whose results were published in Nature last July, physicist Ali Yazdani used a powerful microscope to track electrons as they encountered stairlike barriers on the surface of antimony, a material that shares several characteristics with topological insulators such as bismuth telluride. In a typical copper wire, most electrons would bounce back from such an obstruction and the rest would get absorbed, impeding the flow. “With copper, surface imperfections slow things down and create unwanted heat,” Yazdani explains. With antimony, however, nearly half the electrons passed right across the barrier. Yazdani thinks that topological insulators might start to replace copper in next-generation electronics.

    3 Free Articles Left

    Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.


    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

    Want unlimited access?

    Subscribe today and save 70%


    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In