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Sep 25, 2012

IBM Research Thinks Small—Really Small

By Mike Westholder

In a big data world, it’s becoming clear the future will depend on nanotechnology to store and process limitless information. And IBM researchers continue to make quantum-level breakthroughs in this field.

In January, IBM announced its scientists had stored a bit of data on a dozen atoms. Using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and applying antiferromagnetism, they demonstrated that under certain lab conditions (in extremely low temperatures), a bit of data could be stored on as few as 12 iron atoms. At room temperature, however, researchers found they needed about 150 atoms to store a bit—still considerably fewer than the 1 million atoms required for most modern computing devices.

Then on Feb. 27, IBM researchers revealed they were able to measure, for the first time, how charge is distributed within a single molecule. This breakthrough is expected to enable insights into single-molecule switching and bond formation between atoms and molecules. Its applications could impact areas like solar photoconversion, energy storage and molecular-scale computing devices, according to IBM.

And now, on Sept. 14, researchers at the IBM Research—Zurich lab reported in Science magazine that they had differentiated the chemical bonds in individual molecules for the first time using a noncontact atomic force microscope (AFM). “The results push the exploration of using molecules and atoms at the smallest scale and could be important for studying graphene devices, which are currently being explored by both industry and academia for applications including high-bandwidth wireless communication and electronic displays,” according to an IBM news release.

Graphene is a thin sheet of carbon that has the potential to move electrons 100 times faster than silicon semiconductors. This capability, along with graphene’s strength and the fact it’s only an atom thick, holds great potential in future semiconductor development, particularly as designers approach the limits of silicon chips.

However, defects in graphene need to be overcome before this potential becomes reality in computing devices. Thanks to it most recent discovery, IBM is moving closer to that reality. But that’s nothing new to researchers at IBM Research—Zurich, the “birthplace of nanotechnology.”

In 1981, that’s where IBM Fellows Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the STM, which allowed scientists to image individual atoms and eventually manipulate them, opening up the possibilities of nanoscience. For their invention, Binnig and Rohrer were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. Building upon the STM, in that same year, Binning would invent the AFM, which made this latest development possible.

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