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IBM claims nanotech breakthrough: Atoms measured in nanoseconds

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

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.

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.

IBM gets up close with atomic behavior (images)

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.

Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure