By Steve Hamm
I have always loved science, though I was never that good at it in school. So it’s a major pleasure–as well as a bit ironic–for me to reveal that I’m one of fewer than one thousand people in the world who have moved an atom.
I got to do this a few weeks back in the nanoscience lab at IBM Research-Almaden in San Jose, Calif. The lab has been a hotbed of atom moving for decades, and a small team of scientists there is now pushing the boundaries of science in hopes of producing knowledge that will help people design and build quantum computers some day.
IBM has operated at the front edge of nanotechnology since the field’s earliest days—first creating images of atoms, then moving them, then building tiny devices from the ground up out of individual atoms. I’m proud to be part of this tradition in my own miniscule way.
The first IBM breakthrough came at IBM Research – Zurich after the lab in 1978 hired recent PhD. recipient Gerd Binnig and teamed him with senior researcher Heinrich Rohrer. Within a matter of months they got the idea for the scanning tunneling microscope, which can detect individual atoms by scanning over a surface with a tiny electronic probe. The instrument takes advantage of a phenomenon called tunneling, which causes electrons to jump from the atoms on the surface to the apex of a sharp tip placed in very close proximity. By measuring the amount of tunneling current that occurred, the scientists could plot a picture of the surface and the atoms positioned on top of it. It wasn’t just any new microscope. For the first time, scientists could “see” atomic landscapes composed of individual atoms. It was the birthplace of nanotechnology. For their efforts, Gerd and Heinrich won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986. In 2011, IBM honored the duo by naming its new $90 million cutting-edge nanoscience lab the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center.
Here’s how the STM works:
Moving atoms came in 1989. A team of scientists at IBM Research – Almaden headed by Don Eigler made improvements to the STM and Don became the first person to manipulate an individual atom. In a marathon 22-hour session in the lab, he arranged 35 xenon atoms to spell out “IBM” in tiny letters. Then he went to a cocktail party and told his wife what he had done. Ho-hum; another day at the office. While the moving of a single atom was remarkable in itself, Don later commented that there was an even more important result: “The biggest change was it changed people’s perspective. We showed that there was a world out there made of small things, which we had never had access to, but we now have direct access to. It changes the way we think about things.”
Breakthroughs like these are truly thrilling–for the scientists who accomplish them as well as for the rest of us.
Consider the story of Andreas Heinrich, the man who now runs the nanoscience lab at Almaden. Andreas grew up in West Germany, near the eastern border, at a time when it seemed like history had stopped. Western Europe was sharply divided from the East, and it felt like that would never change. Yet, in 1989, when he was a university freshman, the Berlin Wall fell and the world was new again. He remembers it as a tremendously exciting time.
Andreas had a similarly ecstatic reaction roughly 20 years later—on March 2, 2011–when he and his team accomplished a major breakthrough in nanotechnology. They produced the smallest device that can be used to reliably store a single bit of magnetic information–albeit at low temperature. (A bit is either a one or a zero.) It was comprised of just 12 atoms. Today’s disk drives use about one million atoms to store a bit. The team’s breakthrough has the potential to make a big difference in the realm of data storage, making it possible, for instance, for a person to keep their entire movie and music collection on a charm-sized pendant around their neck.
Sitting at a table in their tiny laboratory in a building perched on top of California’s Santa Cruz Mountain range, he reflexively pressed the button on his computer mouse to reverse the magnetic states of the 12 atoms and stared at a small computer screen where the atoms showed up graphically as small bumps on a flat surface. When the structure received an electrical pulse from the tiny probe tip of the microscope, some atoms grew visibly taller while others shrank–based on their antiferromagnetic arrangement. Andreas switched the magnetic state of the atoms over and over again for nearly four hours. “It was basically, ‘Wow, this works.’ Do it again. ‘Wow, this works,’” he recalls. Such are the joys of a scientist working at the edge of the known physical universe.
Just a few months ago, Andreas and his team worked with animators and movie makers to create the smallest movie ever made, A Boy and His Atom.
These days, the world of small things looms large on the human landscape. Nanotechnology advances offer the promise of world-shaking progress throughout the realm of electronics in everything from big data analytics to cognitive computing–the ability of computers to learn, reason and interact more naturally with human beings. In fact, radical new processing techniques will be required for society to take full advantage of the big data and cognitive computing phenomena.
Think about what has been accomplished since Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer invented the STM. It’s difficult to know what exactly will come next, but it’s not hard to predict that it will be another mind blower.