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What's old is new again: vacuum tubes could eventually replace transistors

For decades, computer components have been getting smaller, even as their capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds. However, this process has started to slow down over the last few years — and it seems that the industry might have to look to the past to chart a path to the future.

Before transistors, many pieces of consumer electronics used vacuum tubes as a means of controlling electric current. Now, a research project being carried out at the California Institute of Technology (better known as Caltech) seems poised to take this seemingly outdated technology and re-purpose it for the modern era.

Dr. Axel Scherer is the head of the Nanofabrication Group at Caltech, and he’s leading an effort to create an updated version of the vacuum tube. His team has been able to create fabricated circuits that are just one millionth of the size of a standard version of the component constructed a century ago.

This inscrutably small tube is made from metal, and is able to turn the flow of electrons being exchanged between four even smaller probes on and off, according to a report from the New York Times.

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Modern transistors, when they’re built at very small sizes, tend to leak electrons. Up to half the power consumed by computer chips can be lost as these electrons leak from transistors, which wastes energy and generates heat.

A process known as quantum tunneling causes these leaks, but Dr. Scherer and his team are using the same phenomenon to prevent the waste. The vacuum tubes being constructed at Caltech are able to control the flow of electrons without leakage, which could make them a highly efficient replacement for transistors.

It will be some time before vacuum tubes replace the transistors in your PC, but development of this technology is set to continue for the foreseeable future. Boeing is financing the research taking place at Caltech, and it’s thought that specialty chips based on this work could reach the market before 2020.