Quantum Tunneling

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Quantum tunneling is the quantum mechanical phenomenon where a subatomic particle passes through a potential barrier. Quantum tunnelling is not predicted by the laws of classical mechanics where surmounting a potential barrier requires enough potential energy.

Quantum tunnelling plays an essential role in several physical phenomena, such as the nuclear fusion that occurs in main sequence stars like the Sun. It has important applications in the tunnel diode, quantum computing, and in the scanning tunnelling microscope. The effect was predicted in the early 20th century, and its acceptance as a general physical phenomenon came mid-century.

Fundamental quantum mechanical concepts are central to this phenomenon, which makes quantum tunnelling one of the novel implications of quantum mechanics. Quantum tunneling is projected to create physical limits to the size of the transistors used in microprocessors, due to electrons being able to tunnel past them if the transistors are too small.

Tunnelling is often explained in terms of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that the quantum object can be known as a wave or as a particle in general.

Introduction to the concept

Quantum tunnelling falls under the domain of quantum mechanics: the study of what happens at the quantum scale. This process cannot be directly perceived, but much of its understanding is shaped by the microscopic world, which classical mechanics cannot adequately explain. To understand the phenomenon, particles attempting to travel between potential barriers can be compared to a ball trying to roll over a hill; quantum mechanics and classical mechanics differ in their treatment of this scenario. Classical mechanics predicts that particles that do not have enough energy to classically surmount a barrier will not be able to reach the other side. Thus, a ball without sufficient energy to surmount the hill would roll back down. Or, lacking the energy to penetrate a wall, it would bounce back (reflection) or in the extreme case, bury itself inside the wall (absorption). In quantum mechanics, these particles can, with a very small probability, tunnel to the other side, thus crossing the barrier. Here, the "ball" could, in a sense, borrow energy from its surroundings to tunnel through the wall or "roll over the hill", paying it back by making the reflected electrons more energetic than they otherwise would have been.

The reason for this difference comes from the treatment of matter in quantum mechanics as having properties of waves and particles. One interpretation of this duality involves the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which defines a limit on how precisely the position and the momentum of a particle can be known at the same time.[6] This implies that there are no solutions with a probability of exactly zero (or one), though a solution may approach infinity if, for example, the calculation for its position was taken as a probability of 1, the other, i.e. its speed, would have to be infinity. Hence, the probability of a given particle's existence on the opposite side of an intervening barrier is non-zero, and such particles will appear on the 'other' (a semantically difficult word in this instance) side with a relative frequency proportional to this probability.

The tunneling problem

The wave function of a particle summarises everything that can be known about a physical system. Therefore, problems in quantum mechanics center on the analysis of the wave function for a system. Using mathematical formulations of quantum mechanics, such as the Schrödinger equation, the wave function can be solved. The absolute value of this wavefunction to the power of 2 is directly related to the probability density of the particle's position, which describes the probability that the particle is at any given place. In the limit of large barriers, the probability of tunneling decreases for taller and wider barriers.

For simple tunneling-barrier models, such as the rectangular barrier, an analytic solution exists. Problems in real life often do not have one, so "semiclassical" or "quasiclassical" methods have been developed to give approximate solutions to these problems, like the WKB approximation. Probabilities may be derived with arbitrary precision, constrained by computational resources, via Feynman's path integral method; such precision is seldom required in engineering practice.

Related phenomena

There are several phenomena that have the same behaviour as quantum tunnelling, and thus can be accurately described by tunnelling. Examples include the tunnelling of a classical wave-particle association, evanescent wave coupling (the application of Maxwell's wave-equation to light) and the application of the non-dispersive wave-equation from acoustics applied to "waves on strings". Evanescent wave coupling, until recently, was only called "tunnelling" in quantum mechanics; now it is used in other contexts.

These effects are modelled similarly to the rectangular potential barrier. In these cases, there is one transmission medium through which the wave propagates that is the same or nearly the same throughout, and a second medium through which the wave travels differently. This can be described as a thin region of medium B between two regions of medium A. The analysis of a rectangular barrier by means of the Schrödinger equation can be adapted to these other effects provided that the wave equation has travelling wave solutions in medium A but real exponential solutions in medium B.

In optics, medium A is a vacuum while medium B is glass. In acoustics, medium A may be a liquid or gas and medium B a solid. For both cases, medium A is a region of space where the particle's total energy is greater than its potential energy and medium B is the potential barrier. These have an incoming wave and resultant waves in both directions. There can be more mediums and barriers, and the barriers need not be discrete; approximations are useful in this case.


Tunnelling occurs with barriers of thickness around 1–3 nm and smaller, but is the cause of some important macroscopic physical phenomena. For instance, tunnelling is a source of current leakage in very-large-scale integration (VLSI) electronics and results in the substantial power drain and heating effects that plague high-speed and mobile technology; it is considered the lower limit on how small computer chips can be made. Tunnelling is a fundamental technique used to program the floating gates of flash memory, which is one of the most significant inventions that have shaped consumer electronics in the last two decades.

Nuclear fusion in stars

Quantum tunneling is essential for nuclear fusion in stars. The temperature in stars' cores is generally insufficient to allow atomic nuclei to overcome the Coulomb barrier and achieve Thermonuclear fusion. Quantum tunneling increases the probability of penetrating this barrier. Though this probability is still low, the extremely large number of nuclei in the core of a star is sufficient to sustain a steady fusion reaction for millions, billions, or even trillions of years – a precondition for the evolution of life in insolation habitable zones

Radioactive decay

Radioactive decay is the process of emission of particles and energy from the unstable nucleus of an atom to form a stable product. This is done via the tunnelling of a particle out of the nucleus (an electron tunnelling into the nucleus is electron capture). This was the first application of quantum tunnelling and led to the first approximations. Radioactive decay is also a relevant issue for astrobiology as this consequence of quantum tunnelling is creating a constant source of energy over a large period of time for environments outside the circumstellar habitable zone where insolation would not be possible (subsurface oceans) or effective.

Astrochemistry in interstellar clouds

By including quantum tunnelling, the astrochemical syntheses of various molecules in interstellar clouds can be explained such as the synthesis of molecular hydrogen, water (ice) and the prebiotic important formaldehyde.

Quantum biology

Quantum tunnelling is among the central non trivial quantum effects in quantum biology. Here it is important both as electron tunnelling and proton tunnelling. Electron tunnelling is a key factor in many biochemical redox reactions (photosynthesis, cellular respiration) as well as enzymatic catalysis while proton tunnelling is a key factor in spontaneous mutation of DNA

Spontaneous mutation of DNA occurs when normal DNA replication takes place after a particularly significant proton has defied the odds in quantum tunnelling in what is called "proton tunnelling" (quantum biology). A hydrogen bond joins normal base pairs of DNA. There exists a double well potential along a hydrogen bond separated by a potential energy barrier. It is believed that the double well potential is asymmetric with one well deeper than the other so the proton normally rests in the deeper well. For a mutation to occur, the proton must have tunnelled into the shallower of the two potential wells. The movement of the proton from its regular position is called a tautomeric transition. If DNA replication takes place in this state, the base pairing rule for DNA may be jeopardised causing a mutation. Per-Olov Lowdin was the first to develop this theory of spontaneous mutation within the double helix (quantum bio). Other instances of quantum tunnelling-induced mutations in biology are believed to be a cause of ageing and cancer.

Cold emission

Cold emission of electrons is relevant to semiconductors and superconductor physics. It is similar to thermionic emission, where electrons randomly jump from the surface of a metal to follow a voltage bias because they statistically end up with more energy than the barrier, through random collisions with other particles. When the electric field is very large, the barrier becomes thin enough for electrons to tunnel out of the atomic state, leading to a current that varies approximately exponentially with the electric field. These materials are important for flash memory, vacuum tubes, as well as some electron microscopes.

Tunnel junction

A simple barrier can be created by separating two conductors with a very thin insulator. These are tunnel junctions, the study of which requires understanding of quantum tunnelling. Josephson junctions take advantage of quantum tunnelling and the superconductivity of some semiconductors to create the Josephson effect. This has applications in precision measurements of voltages and magnetic fields, as well as the multijunction solar cell.

Quantum-dot cellular automata

QCA is a molecular binary logic synthesis technology that operates by the inter-island electron tunneling system. This is a very low power and fast device that can operate at a maximum frequency of 15 PHz.

Tunnel diode

Diodes are electrical semiconductor devices that allow electric current flow in one direction more than the other. The device depends on a depletion layer between N-type and P-type semiconductors to serve its purpose; when these are very heavily doped the depletion layer can be thin enough for tunnelling. Then, when a small forward bias is applied, the current due to tunnelling is significant. This has a maximum at the point where the voltage bias is such that the energy level of the p and n conduction bands are the same. As the voltage bias is increased, the two conduction bands no longer line up and the diode acts typically.

Because the tunnelling current drops off rapidly, tunnel diodes can be created that have a range of voltages for which current decreases as voltage is increased. This peculiar property is used in some applications, like high speed devices where the characteristic tunnelling probability changes as rapidly as the bias voltage.

The resonant tunnelling diode makes use of quantum tunnelling in a very different manner to achieve a similar result. This diode has a resonant voltage for which there is a lot of current that favors a particular voltage, achieved by placing two very thin layers with a high energy conductance band very near each other. This creates a quantum potential well that has a discrete lowest energy level. When this energy level is higher than that of the electrons, no tunnelling will occur, and the diode is in reverse bias. Once the two voltage energies align, the electrons flow like an open wire. As the voltage is increased further tunnelling becomes improbable and the diode acts like a normal diode again before a second energy level becomes noticeable.

Tunnel field-effect transistors

A European research project has demonstrated field effect transistors in which the gate (channel) is controlled via quantum tunnelling rather than by thermal injection, reducing gate voltage from ≈1 volt to 0.2 volts and reducing power consumption by up to 100×. If these transistors can be scaled up into VLSI chips, they will significantly improve the performance per power of integrated circuits.

Quantum conductivity

While the Drude model of electrical conductivity makes excellent predictions about the nature of electrons conducting in metals, it can be furthered by using quantum tunnelling to explain the nature of the electron's collisions. When a free electron wave packet encounters a long array of uniformly spaced barriers the reflected part of the wave packet interferes uniformly with the transmitted one between all barriers so that there are cases of 100% transmission. The theory predicts that if positively charged nuclei form a perfectly rectangular array, electrons will tunnel through the metal as free electrons, leading to an extremely high conductance, and that impurities in the metal will disrupt it significantly.

Scanning tunnelling microscope

The scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), invented by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, may allow imaging of individual atoms on the surface of a material. It operates by taking advantage of the relationship between quantum tunnelling with distance. When the tip of the STM's needle is brought very close to a conduction surface that has a voltage bias, by measuring the current of electrons that are tunnelling between the needle and the surface, the distance between the needle and the surface can be measured. By using piezoelectric rods that change in size when voltage is applied over them the height of the tip can be adjusted to keep the tunnelling current constant. The time-varying voltages that are applied to these rods can be recorded and used to image the surface of the conductor.[24] STMs are accurate to 0.001 nm, or about 1% of atomic diameter.

Kinetic isotope effect

In chemical kinetics, the substitution of a light isotope of an element with a heavier one typically results in a slower reaction rate. This is generally attributed to differences in the zero-point vibrational energies for chemical bonds containing the lighter and heavier isotopes and is generally modeled using transition state theory. However, in certain cases, very large isotope effects are observed that cannot be accounted for by a semi-classical treatment of kinetic isotope effects, and quantum tunneling through the energy barrier is invoked. R. P. Bell has developed a modified treatment of Arrhenius kinetics that is commonly used to model this phenomenon.

Faster than light

Some physicists have claimed that it is possible for spin-zero particles to travel faster than the speed of light when tunnelling. This apparently violates the principle of causality, since there will be a frame of reference in which it arrives before it has left. In 1998, Francis E. Low reviewed briefly the phenomenon of zero-time tunnelling. More recently experimental tunnelling time data of phonons, photons, and electrons have been published by Günter Nimtz.

Other physicists, such as Herbert Winful, have disputed these claims. Winful argues that the wavepacket of a tunnelling particle propagates locally, so a particle can't tunnel through the barrier non-locally. Winful also argues that the experiments that are purported to show non-local propagation have been misinterpreted. In particular, the group velocity of a wavepacket does not measure its speed, but is related to the amount of time the wavepacket is stored in the barrier.


Modified from Quantum Tunnelling. Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Jan. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_tunnelling.