A quantum mechanical effect in which particles have a finite probability of crossing an energy barrier, such as the energy needed to break a bond with another particle, even though the particle's energy is less than the energy barrier. Quantum tunneling has no counterpart in classical mechanics, in which a particle can never cross an energy barrier with a higher energy level than the particle has. The emission of alpha rays in radioactive decay is a case of quantum tunneling; though the alpha particles are strongly bound to the nucleus and don't have as much energy as the bond does, they still have a finite probability of escaping the nucleus. The design of transistors and many diodes makes use of this effect. See also radioactivity.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.