“Single-wall carbon nanotubes are already known to carry current densities up to 100 times higher than the best metals like copper,” said Eric Pop, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the U. of I. “We now show that semiconducting nanotubes can carry nearly twice as much current as previously thought.”
“We found that the current first plateaus near 25 microamps, and then sharply increases at higher electric fields,” said Pop, who also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute and the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory at the U. of I. ”We performed repeated measurements, obtaining currents of up to 40 microamps, nearly twice those of previous reports.”
As reported in the journal Physical Review Letters, the researchers found that at high electric fields (10 volts per micron), energetic electrons and holes can create additional electron-hole pairs, leading to an avalanche effect where the free carriers multiply and the current rapidly increases until the nanotube breaks down.
The sharp increase in current, Pop said, is due to the onset of avalanche impact ionization, a phenomenon observed in certain semiconductor diodes and transistors at high electric fields, but not previously seen in nanotubes.
While the maximum current carrying capacity for metallic nanotubes has been measured at about 25 microamps, the maximum current carrying capacity for semiconducting nanotubes is less established. Previous theoretical predictions suggested a similar limit for single-band conduction in semiconducting nanotubes.