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Nano-scale discovery mimics electron tube principles

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Before the 1947 invention of the transistor the electron tube was the basis of virtually all electronic devices.

A team of researchers has built the first nano-scale semiconductor-free, laser-controlled microelectronics device, tapping into the electronic properties of a bygone device – the vacuum tube.

When a low DC voltage (less than 10 Volts) and a low power infrared laser were both applied to an experimental gold meta-surface with mushroom-shaped nano-structures on an array of parallel gold strips it generated “hot spots” with enough energy to pull electrons from the metal and liberate them into space. Tests showed a 1,000 per cent increase in conductivity when activated.

The discovery could lead to microelectronic devices that are faster and capable of handling more power, and could also lead to more efficient solar panels.

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Engineers create semiconductor-free microelectronics

Researchers at the University of California San Diego have developed what they say is the world’s first semiconductor-free, optically-controlled microelectronic device, which could lead to faster electronics and more efficient solar panels. (Credit: UC San Diego Applied

Engineers create semiconductor-free microelectronics

Semiconductors are at the heart of modern computing devices but are approaching the physical limits of what they can achieve using current materials. As a result, Moore’s Law – which predicts that computing power should double every two years – is no longer holding true.

To overcome this problem, the UC San Diego engineers replaced the electrons flowing through semiconductors with free electrons floating in space, similar to the vacuum tubes of early computing, but on a nanoscale. But liberating electrons from materials is difficult, requiring either high voltages, high temperatures or high powered lasers, none of which are practical for microelectronics.

However, the team was able to fabricate a device that releases electrons without the need for these extremes. Described in the journal Nature Communications, it consists of a gold metasurface with mushroom-shaped nanostructures on an array of parallel gold strips.This sits on top of a silicon wafer, with a layer of silicon dioxide in between.

When a low DC voltage (less than 10 Volts) and a low power infrared laser are both applied, the metasurface generates “hot spots” with a high-intensity electric field, which provide enough energy to pull electrons from the metal and liberate them into space.Tests on the device showed a 1,000 per cent increase in conductivity when activated.

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