Although we might not always realize it, vacuum plays a role in countless aspects of our everyday lives. In this series, we take a closer look at just how much we rely on vacuum, from the way we breathe to our bicycle helmets to life-saving medical procedures.

The very first computers – while revolutionary – were vacuum-tube-powered devices that were large enough to fill entire rooms. However, with the invention of semiconductor-based transistors and integrated circuits in the 1940s and 1950s, technology has not been the same. Semiconductor technology has enabled us to shrink room-sized computers to the  extremely thin and light tablets, smartphones and laptops, and even wearable devices, that are so much a part of modern life.

“Researchers created the first semiconductor-free, laser-powered microelectronic device.”

Semiconductor technology is reaching its limits, however, due to the physical limitations of semiconductor materials themselves. When currents are pushed through a semiconductor, they must pass through a solid material that limits their efficiency. To overcome these limitations, researchers from the University of California San Diego recently announced the creation of the first semiconductor-free, laser-powered microelectronic device. This device uses free electrons similarly to how vacuum-tube technology did before semiconductors displaced them decades ago.

While scientists have been aware of the efficiency advantages of moving electrons through a vacuum rather than through semiconducting materials, the challenge has been that high voltages, or powerful lasers were needed, making them extremely difficult to miniaturize into integrated circuits. The San Diego team developed a golden nanostructure and uses a low-powered laser that can free the electrons to travel though the vacuum instead of the semiconductor and function as optical switches. If the technology can be brought to commercial scale, it holds the promise of a 1000-fold increase in efficiencies over semiconducting materials, and a world of as-yet-unimagined applications.

At VACUUBRAND®, we are experts in vacuum for science. To learn more about our laboratory and OEM vacuum pumps, please visit our website. If you’d like details about our modular, energy-saving alternative to central vacuum systems for labs, our technology microsite offers an overview. Or simply contact us today about your lab vacuum needs.