20 Years of Moving Atoms, One by One

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Sometimes genius looks like an elegant equation written in chalk on a blackboard. Sometimes it's a hodgepodge of wires, canisters and aluminum-foil-wrapped hoses, all held together by shiny bolts.

Despite its homebrew appearance, this device, a scanning tunneling microscope, is one of the most extraordinary lab instruments of the last three decades. It can pick up individual atoms one by one and move them around to create supersmall structures, a fundamental requirement for nanotechnology.

Twenty years ago this week, on Sept. 28, 1989, an IBM physicist, Don Eigler, became the first person to manipulate and position individual atoms. Less than two months later, he arranged 35 Xenon atoms to spell out the letters IBM. Writing those three characters took about 22 hours. Today, the process would take about 15 minutes.

"We wanted to show we could position atoms in a way that's very similar to how a child builds with Lego blocks," says Eigler, who works at IBM's Almaden Research Center. "You take the blocks where you want them to go."

Eigler's breakthrough has big implications for computer science. For instance, researchers are looking to build smaller and smaller electronic devices. They hope, someday, to engineer these devices from the ground up, on a nanometer scale.

"The ability to manipulate atoms, build structures of our own, design and explore their functionality has changed people's outlook in many ways," says Eigler. "It has been known equally unit of the start moments of nanotech because of the reach it gave America to atoms, yet although no more intersection has comes away of it."

On the twentieth day of remembrance of Eigler's achievement, we depend Laotian monetary unit the science, artwork and implications of moving organism atoms.

Moving Atoms

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"What hits you is the enormity of what you are doing in terms of building at an atomic scale," says Eigler in this video. "It's so far from what we could have conceived many years ago."

IBM spelled by positioning 35 Xenon Atoms.

Scanning Tunneling Microscope

At the heart of the atomic experiments is the scanning tunneling microscope that can not only take pictures of individual atoms but also build new structures using those atoms. Two IBM scientists at the company's Zurich lab, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, created the first tunneling microscope in 1981. Six years later, the inventors won a Nobel Prize.

Here's how it works. The microscope has a fine tip so sharp that it is just one of two atoms at the point. The tip is brought very near to the surface of a sample. An applied voltage will cause electrons to "tunnel" between the surface and the tip. That means the electrons move beyond the surface of the solid into a short region in space above it. Meanwhile, the tip slowly scans the surface of the sample at a distance equal to the diameter of a single atom. Through the scanning process, the tip maintains the same distance and helps draw a profile of the surface. A computer-generated contour map shows the atomic detail.

When the tip is brought close enough to the sample surface, a strong attractive force is present that can pick up an electron from the surface. To deposit it in another region of the sample, a repulsive force between the tip and the atom is generated.

Eigler built a specialized version of this microscope. His STM allows samples to be prepared and studied in an ultrahigh vacuum and at the temperature of liquid helium, which is just four degrees above absolute zero, or -459 degrees Fahrenheit. The low temperature keeps atoms from flying off the copper surface within the microscope.

"Physicists have to do experiments that require design and building of entirely new instrumentation, something that never exists before," says Eigler. "It's part of their training."

Eigler built the first version of the microscope in about 14 months. "The actual microscope that moves the atoms is not very much larger; it can fit into the palm of the hand," he says. "But it seems like a big machine because of everything else that was required to maintain very low vibration, high vacuum and excellent electronics to move the atoms."

Nobel laureates Heinrich Rohrer (left) and Gerd Binnig (right) of IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory are shown here in 1981 with a first-generation scanning tunneling microscope.

Fun With Single Atoms

Once IBM researchers had the ability to position individual atoms, they had some fun. In 1993, they spelled the Kanji characters for the word atom using iron atoms on a copper surface.

Researchers found it to be so much fun that they started leaving messages for their fellow scientists in the lab STM notebook. Mornings would bring a new figure drawn with manipulated atoms. In one case, a scientist manipulated carbon monoxide on a platinum surface, creating a carbon monoxide man who greeted his lab mates the next morning.

In 1996, The researchers also created the world's smallest abacus with atoms. The abacus was created out of 10 carbon atoms and was seen as a milestone in nanoscale engineering. Moving the links of the abacus wouldn't be easy and require the scanning tunneling microscope but with enough time and patience, it could be done.

The world's smallest abacus with atoms (left), Kanji characters for the word 'atom' (center) and a carbon monoxide man were some of the pictures created by moving atoms.

Atomic Force Microscope

The successor to the STM is the atomic force microscope, which researchers use to measure the force needed to move individual atoms.

The atomic force microscope has a miniature "tuning fork" that measures the interaction between the tip of the microscope and the atoms on a surface. When the tip is positioned close to an atom on the surface, the frequency of the tuning fork changes slightly. This change in frequency is analyzed to determine the force exerted on the atom, which can be used for mapping the surface and moving atoms.

Eigler says the business of moving atoms round is playfulness and his become ne'er gets boring.

"I make love improved Associate in Nursing unforeseen attraction for about of the just about commons thing inwards the world, desire rocks," letter says. "The attraction comes from realizing that's what I amplitude modulation — barely A bunch up of atoms. It's A effortful entity to lecture almost and explain, merely it's A force that is deep, science and emotional."

The atomlike storm magnifier has A calibration shape used to evaluate the storm compulsory to make a motion Associate in Nursing atom.

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Implications for Nanotechnology

In the lastly elite years, Eigler's aggroup has stacked along his become and constructed trade molecules exploitation the STM. They make love besides constructed and operated Associate in Nursing electric tack whose only if moving partially is A hit atom.

In the "If you give notice understand this, you ar besides close" image, the letter ar barely I nanometre widely and I nanometre tall.

A evaluate of the bear upon of this become is inwards the keep down of experiments and technical foul newspaper nowadays that act particle handling equally unit of their primary coil scientific tools, says Eigler.

"If you change almost it, this is not A manufacturing capableness merely A mighty proficiency inwards the laboratory," letter says. "It lets United States of America travel those experiments that offer United States of America the cognition that we would not engender otherwise.

"What's very stimulating to determine is that with all exceedingly week, time unit operating room class we destroy upwards with recently discoveries fixed charge to our abilities to become with really size structures," says Eigler. "It's fairly to hap that these bequeath induce a technological impact on people's lives very soon."

These words were created by laying carbon monoxide molecules on a flat copper surface.

All photos courtesy IBM