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 computer you and I buy is what NASA buys, but they won’t want it exactly the same way,” says Meyya Meyyappan, an engineer at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California. “It takes them a few years to radiation-proof it. Otherwise the computer you put in the space shuttle or the space station basically will get zapped and stop working.”
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, Meyyappan and colleagues estimate that their nano vacuum tube operates at frequencies up to 0.46 terahertz—some 10 times faster than the best silicon transistors.
The team’s device isn’t the first attempt at miniaturizing the vacuum tube. Contrary to previous work, however, the researchers do not need to create a “proper” vacuum: The separation of the source and drain is so small that the electrons stand very little chance of colliding with atoms in the air. This is a huge benefit, says Meyyappan, because it opens the door to mass production.
Electronics engineer Kristel Fobelets at Imperial College London agrees. “Vacuum technology within a semiconductor fabrication line would make fabrication costs very high,” she says. Still, she cautions, the nano vacuum tube is more of a “proof of concept” than a working device, since its operational requirements do not yet match modern transistors. As one example, about 10 volts is needed to switch the device on, whereas modern transistors operate at about 1 volt; in this respect, the nano vacuum tube isn’t compatible with modern circuits.
Even so, the potential is great, says Meyyappan. The new vacuum tube’s inherent immunity to radiation could save the military and NASA a lot of time and money, while its faster operation makes it a rare candidate for so-called terahertz technology. Sitting between the microwave and infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, the terahertz region can pick out the “fingerprints” of certain molecules. The technology could therefore be used at airports to safely scan for illicit drugs, for instance.
So are vacuum tubes poised to make a comeback? Meyyappan thinks so. “We are combining the best of the vacuum,” he says, “and the best of what we have learned in the past 50 years about integrated-circuit manufacture.”