If you’re a technology dweeb, you might well recognize the names Shockley, Brattain, and Bardeen. They are the three scientists at Bell Labs who invented the transistor in 1947. This simple device used an electrical signal to control the flow of electricity in a circuit: a function performed by vacuum tubes at that time. This new discovery was “solid state,” which meant that didn’t need to be heated or have any moving parts that could wear out. These new devices got smaller and smaller, and then people developed “integrated circuits” that included many transistors on a single silicon chip. Modern computer chips now can have 1.6 billion transistors on a single silicon or gallium arsenide chip.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have created transistors using carbon nanotubes (CNT). In addition to being incredibly tiny — just one carbon atom thick — these particles are excellent electrical conductors and are extraordinarily strong. The new transistors have achieved current that’s 1.9 times that of a typical silicon transistor. Their tiny size makes it possible to switch the signal on and off much more rapidly, which means that devices using them could transmit much more information in a given amount of time. The researchers estimate that they could operate up to five times faster. This advantage could also save power, using one-fifth as much power instead, which could result in much lighter or longer lasting batteries.

The key to the team’s success was the use of plastic to help purify, align, and position the nanotubes. They have already been able to create one-inch-square wafers, and are working on developing processes for commercial production. It will take time for the technology to make it out of the lab, but a faster, smaller, more efficient transistor could result in much better wearable Health Tech products when they do become available.