David Pescovitz at BoingBoing points to some research at Case Western Reserve University that at first sounds like the ultimate homage to Babbage’s early mechanical computer. As he explains the project was funded by DARPA which is interested in components that would be much more reliable in high heat environments like inside a jet or rocket engine.
In a transistor, the voltage applied to one of the terminals, the gate, determines whether a current flows through it. But above 250 °C, the device becomes so awash with thermally generated electrons – even when it is supposedly off – that the voltage leaks through the gate to render the device useless. Even silicon carbide, the semiconductor material hardiest against heat, doesn’t remedy the situation.
The nanoscale levers that make the connection necessary for the inverter to function operate via electrostatic attraction when a current is applied, so are not purely mechanical. They are, however, resistant to temperatures in excess of five hundred degrees Celsius. Work remains, however, before practical application as some of the levers have melted or snapped after two billion cycles for reasons that remain unclear to the researchers.
I am usually very critical of the blithe application of the steampunk label. In this case, I think it resonates with the lateral thinking. Te-Hao Lee and his team re-visited concepts that pre-date modern electronics and effectively carried them forward, like retro futurism realized, to find benefits that complement the computing machinery that so successfully supplanted Babbage’s original designs.