From AAAS, news of a super tiny vacuum-tube transistor hybrid that can operate up to .46 TERAHertz (thats 460,000 megahertz or 460 gigahertz):
Return of the Vacuum Tube
by Jon Cartwright
Peer inside an antique radio and you’ll find what look like small light bulbs. They’re actually vacuum tubes—the predecessors of the silicon transistor. Vacuum tubes went the way of the dinosaurs in the 1960s, but researchers have now brought them back to life, creating a nano-sized version that’s faster and hardier than the transistor. It’s even able to survive the harsh radiation of outer space.
Developed early last century, vacuum tubes offered the first easy way to amplify electric signals. Like light bulbs, they are glass bulbs containing a heated filament. But above the filament are two additional electrodes: a metal grid and, at the top of the bulb, a positively charged plate. The heated filament emits a steady flow of electrons, which are attracted to the plate’s positive charge. The rate of electron flow can be controlled by the charge on the intervening grid, which means a small electric signal applied to the grid—say, the tiny output of a gramophone—is reproduced in the much stronger electron flow from filament to plate. As a result, the signal is amplified and can be sent to a loudspeaker.
Vacuum tubes suffered a slow death during the 1950s and ’60s thanks to the invention of the transistor—specifically, the ability to mass-produce transistors by chemically engraving, or etching, pieces of silicon. Transistors were smaller, cheaper, and longer lasting. They could also be packed into microchips to switch on and off according to different, complex inputs, paving the way for smaller, more powerful computers.
But transistors weren’t better in all respects. Electrons move more slowly in a solid than in a vacuum, which means transistors are generally slower than vacuum tubes; as a result, computing isn’t as quick as it could be. What’s more, semiconductors are susceptible to strong radiation, which can disrupt the atomic structure of the silicon such that the charges no longer move properly. That’s a big problem for the military and NASA, which need their technology to work in radiation-harsh environments such as outer space.
The new device is a cross between today’s transistors and the vacuum tubes of yesteryear. It’s small and easily manufactured, but also fast and radiation-proof. Meyyappan, who co-developed the “nano vacuum tube,” says it is created by etching a tiny cavity in phosphorous-doped silicon. The cavity is bordered by three electrodes: a source, a gate, and a drain. The source and drain are separated by just 150 nanometers, while the gate sits on top. Electrons are emitted from the source thanks to a voltage applied across it and the drain, while the gate controls the electron flow across the cavity. In their paper published online today in Applied Physics Letters,
Full story here at AAAS, here’s my concept pictorial image (may not be fully accurate – I don’t have access to their paper diagrams) of what it looks like compared to the traditional vacuum tube (triode) based on what I’ve been able to find on the design:
The paper from AIP:
Vacuum nanoelectronics: Back to the future?—Gate insulated nanoscale vacuum channel transistor
Jin-Woo Han1, Jae Sub Oh2, and M. Meyyappan1
1Center for Nanotechnology, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California 94035, USA
2National Nanofab Center, 335 Gwahangno, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-806, Korea
(Received 24 February 2012; accepted 22 April 2012; published online 23 May 2012)
- A gate-insulated vacuum channel transistor was fabricated using standard silicon semiconductor processing. Advantages of the vacuum tube and transistor are combined here by nanofabrication. A photoresist ashing technique enabled the nanogap separation of the emitter and the collector, thus allowing operation at less than 10 V. A cut-off frequency fT of 0.46 THz has been obtained. The nanoscale vacuum tubes can provide high frequency/power output while satisfying the metrics of lightness, cost, lifetime, and stability at harsh conditions, and the operation voltage can be decreased comparable to the modern semiconductor devices.