Tunneling in solids

Tunneling in solids

A quantum-mechanical process which permits electrons to penetrate from one side to the other through an extremely thin potential barrier to electron flow. The barrier would be a forbidden region if the electron were treated as a classical particle. A two-terminal electronic device in which such a barrier exists and primarily governs the transport characteristic (current-voltage curve) is called a tunnel junction. See Quantum mechanics

During the infancy of the quantum theory, L. de Broglie introduced the fundamental hypothesis that matter may be endowed with a dualistic nature—particles such as electrons, alpha particles, and so on, may also have the characteristics of waves. This hypothesis found expression in the definite form now known as the Schrödinger wave equation, whereby an electron or an alpha particle is represented by a solution to this equation. The nature of such solutions implies an ability to penetrate classically forbidden regions of negative kinetic energy and a probability of tunneling from one classically allowed region to another. The concept of tunneling, indeed, arises from this quantum-mechanical result. The subsequent experimental manifestations of this concept, such as high-field electron emission from cold metals, alpha decay, and so on, in the 1920s, can be regarded as one of the early triumphs of the quantum theory. See Field emission, Radioactivity, Schrödinger's wave equation

The tunnel diode (also called the Esaki diode), discovered in 1957 by L. Esaki, demonstrated the first convincing evidence of electron tunneling in solids.

Negative resistance phenomena can be observed in novel tunnel structures in semiconductors. Double tunnel barriers and periodic structures with a combination of semiconductors exhibit resonant tunneling and negative resistance effects. See Semiconductor heterostructures

Tunneling had been considered to be a possible electron transport mechanism between metal electrodes separated by either a narrow vacuum or a thin insulating film usually made of metal oxides. In 1960, I. Giaever demonstrated that, if one or both of the metals were in a superconducting state, the current-voltage curve in such metal tunnel junctions revealed many details of that state.

In 1962, B. Josephson made a penetrating theoretical analysis of tunneling between two superconductors by treating the two superconductors and the coupling process as a single system, which would be valid if the insulating oxide were sufficiently thin, say 2 nanometers. His theory predicted the existence of a supercurrent, arising from tunneling of the bound electron pairs. This led to two startling conclusions: the dc and ac Josephson effects. The dc effect implies that a supercurrent may flow even if no voltage is applied to the junction. The ac effect implies that, at finite voltage V, there is an alternating component of the supercurrent which oscillates at a frequency of 483.6 MHz per microvolt of voltage across the junction, and is typically in the microwave range. See Josephson effect

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.