Photos: Inside IBM's Zurich research lab

Photos: Inside IBM's Zurich research lab

Summary: Now turning 50, the lab has produced Nobel Prize-winning technical breakthroughs, including the scanning tunneling microscope.


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  • Leafy green welcomes visitors to IBM's Zurich lab

    The IBM Research laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland, founded 50 years ago, was Big Blue's first research facility outside the U.S. It was 25 years ago that the lab made its most famous research breakthrough: the scanning tunneling microscope, which provided the foundation for understanding and working with nanoscale technology.

    That breakthrough brought a Nobel Prize in physics in 1986 for Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer. Only a year later, the lab hit the research jackpot again, when Georg Bednorz and Alex Mueller scooped the same prize for their work on high-temperature superconductivity.

    Two Nobels in two years is some achievement, especially considering that IBM Research as a whole has won only three in total.

    Despite its pedigree, IBM Zurich is quite small. There are 240 employees, and 50 predoctoral and 30 postdoctoral students. IBM Research has 3,500 employees in eight laboratories around the world--with three of those labs in the U.S., including the largest, Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

    The work of the lab in Zurich varies widely, from advanced silicon research to helping IBM's consulting arm win new business.

  • Shiny gizmos tackle the puzzle of nanowires

    Investigating nanoscale objects is a hugely tricky process--even with a scanning electron microscope--and the research needs to be conducted in a special atmosphere. This particular work, conducted by Walter Riess, the research manager for nanoscale structures and devices, is looking at ways of growing nanowires.

    A nanowire is an extremely narrow object that has an aspect ratio (the ratio between length and width) of 1,000-to-1 or greater. At this time, nanowires and their possible uses exist only in the realms of research, but Riess and his team are investigating different elements for their suitability for "growing" nanowires, and trying to deduce the properties those wires will have. The aim is to use nanowires to manufacture microprocessors.

    A microprocessor built from nanowires would, in theory, be much more powerful than current processors since computers are based on electrical signals running through very narrow channels. Today's microprocessors are so small inside that signals leak and create interference, a problem that will only get bigger as the channels get smaller. Can nanowires conduct electrical signals in nanoscale structures? A lot of science needs to be done before we know the answer to that one.

Topic: IBM

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