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. 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.