IBM zooms in on atom behavior as nanotech gets closeup

IBM zooms in on atom behavior as nanotech gets closeup

Summary: IBM researchers have devised how to track atoms and their behavior at nanoscale. The applications: storage, solar cell efficiency and quantum computing.

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TOPICS: IBM, Storage
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Cross posted at Smart Planet.

IBM Research has delivered a breakthrough that can track atoms and their behavior at nanoscale. The discovery could allow atoms to be better manipulated for nanotechnology applications such as storage, solar cell efficiency and quantum computing.

Gallery: IBM gets up close with atomic behavior (images)

In a nutshell, IBM has figured out how to use its Scanning Technology Microscope (STM, right), discovered in 1980, as a slow-motion camera. Like a camera that can slow down a hummingbird's wings on film, IBM can now chart the various behaviors of atoms in nanoseconds. Now anyone with an STM can record atom movements, a process that could have taken hours before.

Aspects such as magnetic properties, how long an atom can record and store information and the interplay of atoms and energy transfer were largely unknown. Before, IBM could see static nanostructures, but not atom behavior.

Big Blue's findings will be published in the journal Science. IBM researcher Sebastian Loth said in an interview that the bottom line is that nanostructure behavior can now be characterized and measured and mapped.

"The tool allows us to measure structures with true pinpoint precision," said Loth, based in IBM's Almaden lab.

Since nanostructures don't exactly stop and smile for the camera, IBM's breakthrough could be quite helpful. Simply put, speed matters in nanotechnology and you need to see behavior in nanoseconds. After all, the difference in time between one nanosecond and one second is the equivalent of the time between one second and 30 years.

Loth added that the next phase is to observe atom behavior and later program nanostructures for certain purposes. For instance, a magnetic atom can now be grouped with others to deliver stable data storage. Today, you need about 10,000 atoms to store one magnetic bit, Loth said. Swap around atoms and become more efficient with the electrons and you can cut down the atoms and increase data retention time.

"The next thing to address is whether we can build more complex things," Loth said.

For its breakthrough, IBM deployed a "pump-probe" technique where researchers excited an atom and then sent a second pulse to measure the magnetism in various time frames. From there, speeds were measured to determine the magnetic lifetime of atoms.

As for real world applications, IBM's breakthrough won't turn up in a product right away. But the findings will lead to further scientific inquiry.

Solar power is one key area. Organic solar cells aren't nearly as efficient as they could be. If scientists can really figure out what happens as light is converted to energy as well as how the atoms behave, cells could become more efficient.

So-called storage-class memory, tiny cells that hold data, would be another hot field.

Talking to Loth, it was easy to go from zero to science fiction. What are the medical applications? What about quantum computing? The possibilities seem endless.

Topics: IBM, Storage

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  • R&D is driven both by a desire to do R&D and money.

    The former might be there but R&D for OSS seems to be much less. The OSS community seems more intent on undercutting proprietary companies by providing software alternatives and thus putting themselves in the position of chasing the proprietary companies, rather than creating new technologies and bypassing them. And one of the reasons for that is the lack of cash to fund such R&D. So we end up with a parasitic relationship - OSS depending on Proprietary for R&D.
    DevGuy_z
  • RE: IBM zooms in on atom behavior as nanotech gets closeup

    Thank the heavens that IBM continues to spend money on basic R&D. Too few companies in the US continue to do so.

    Not to mention that 60% of PhD graduates in the US come from abroad, and more and more are returning, or being forced to return home.

    If the US wants to remain a strong economic power, it needs other products than financial intermediation. Innovation is the key.
    jorjitop
    • RE: IBM zooms in on atom behavior as nanotech gets closeup

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