IBM hits milestone by measuring force that moves atoms

Invention will help build myriad nanoscale devices, like chips and atomic storage

Hitting a major milestone in nanotechnology, IBM researchers have figured out how to measure the amount of force needed to move an atom.

And that information could enable scientists to more easily - and quickly - develop nanoscale devices like atomic-level storage and computer chips.

"IBM has been involved in atomic manipulation for 20 years," said Andreas Heinrich, a researcher and project leader at IBM. "What we have now is a way to quantify why we can move certain things, because now we know the forces involved. It's going from a trial-and-error stage to a more systematic way of doing things. It will be easier to build stuff once you have this knowledge."

Heinrich noted that in 1989 IBM Fellow Don Eigler showed off the ability to manipulate individual atoms with atomic-scale precision. Now about 20 years later, Heinrich and Markus Ternes, a post doctoral scientist at IBM, worked with scientists at the University of Regensburg to devise a way to calculate the force needed to manipulate those individual atoms.

Understanding the force required to move an atom is key to nanotechnology, according to Ternes. He explained that it's like engineers figuring out how to build a bridge over a large river. They both need to understand the strength of the different materials. How much force would it take to make a piece of metal bend? How much force would it take to move a cobalt atom over a copper surface? They're similar questions that all need to be answered in order to build a bridge or a nanoscale storage device.

"It's increased our understanding of how nature works," said Ternes. "If you want to construct something, you have to know what the maximum load [is that] you can put on something before it breaks. Interactions and how easily things can move is important if you want to start talking about construction on a nanoscale."

To make the microscopic measurements, the scientists modified a scanning tunneling microscope, which normally is used to view images as small as single atoms. By mounting a needle on the microscope, the scientists can measure the motion of the needle when it moves the atom.

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