Vacuum Tubes May Be Revived
(p. B1) PASADENA, Calif. -- The future of computing may be in its past.
The silicon transistor, the tiny switch that is the building block of modern microelectronics, replaced the vacuum tube in many consumer products in the 1970s. Now as shrinking transistors to even more Lilliputian dimensions is becoming vastly more challenging, the vacuum tube may be on the verge of a comeback.
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The Achilles' heel of today's transistors is the smaller they get, the more they leak electrons. In modern computer chips, as much as half of the power consumed is lost to electrons leaking from transistors that are only dozens of atoms wide. Those electrons waste energy and generate heat.
In contrast, Dr. Scherer's miniature vacuum tube switches perform a jujitsu move by using the same mechanism that causes leakage in transistors -- known by physicists as quantum tunneling -- to switch on and off the flow of electrons without leakage. As a result, he believes that modern vacuum tube circuits have the potential to use less power and work faster than today's transistor-based chips.
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Vacuum tubes are one of a range of ideas that engineers are looking at as they work to create chips that can do more while using less power. Other promising approaches include exotic materials such as carbon nanotubes and even microscopic mechanical switches that can be opened and closed just like an electronic gate.
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(Note: the online version of the article has the date JUNE 5, 2016, and has the title "Smaller Chips May Depend on Vacuum Tube Technology.")