A new joint innovation by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the University of Cambridge could pave the way for redefining the ampere in terms of fundamental constants of physics. The world’s first graphene single-electron pump (SEP), described in a paper today in Nature Nanotechnology, provides the speed of electron flow needed to create a new standard for electrical current based on electron charge.
The international system of units (SI) comprises seven base units (the metre, kilogram, second, Kelvin, ampere, mole and candela). Ideally these should be stable over time and universally reproducible. This requires definitions based on fundamental constants of nature which are the same wherever you measure them.
The present definition of the Ampere, however, is vulnerable to drift and instability. This is not sufficient to meet the accuracy needs of present and certainly future electrical measurement. The highest global measurement authority, the Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures, has proposed that the ampere be re-defined in terms of the electron charge.
The frontrunner in this race to redefine the ampere is the single-electron pump (SEP). SEPs create a flow of individual electrons by shuttling them in to a quantum dot – a particle holding pen – and emitting them one at a time and at a well-defined rate. The paper published today describes how a graphene SEP has been successfully produced and characterised for the first time, and confirms its properties are extremely well suited to this application.
A good SEP pumps precisely one electron at a time to ensure accuracy, and pumps them quickly to generate a sufficiently large current. Up to now the development of a practical electron pump has been a two-horse race. Tuneable barrier pumps use traditional semiconductors and have the advantage of speed, while the hybrid turnstile utilises superconductivity and has the advantage that many can be put in parallel. Traditional metallic pumps, thought to be not worth pursuing, have been given a new lease of life by fabricating them out of the world’s most famous super-material – graphene. More here Graphene joins the race to redefine the ampere.