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Scientists use lasers to create next-gen microelectronics without semiconductors

Scientists at the University of California San Diego have reportedly created a new type of microelectronic device that could someday replace the semiconductor-based processor inside your PC.

The new technology is in very early stages, but it involves some pretty interesting research and some concepts that sound right out of science fiction. The UCSD engineers have created an optically controlled microelectronic device that consists of a metasurface made up of golden nanostructures which create high-intensity electric fields when exposed to an infrared laser. It sounds great, but what does it really do?

Essentially this new semiconductor-free microelectronic device could someday solve a problem that modern-day microprocessors face. A processor works by channeling electrons through a microscopic maze to hit on-off switches billions or trillions of times per second. The problem is, those electrons are constantly colliding with atoms, and many of them don’t get where they need to go – there are a lot of electrons that are lost in the process.

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This new microelectronic device tries to solve that problem by working like an old-timey vacuum tube, but on a microscale. The mushroom-shaped nanostructures on the device comprise a metasurface on top of a silicon wafer with a layer of silicon dioxide separating them. When this structure is subjected to a low DC voltage and a low powered infrared laser, it’s capable of creating high-intensity electric fields which can “free” electrons in space, according to UC San Diego’s press release.

More than anything what this means is that the experimental technology can potentially allow more electrons to be manipulated at a time, with less interference, which means they can potentially outperform current semiconductor-based processors. It’s a long way from making an appearance in the latest smartphone, but it’s an interesting concept and definitely an interesting way to tackle an otherwise near-insurmountable problem faced by modern electronics.