IBM Breakthrough Advances Nanotechnology Research

IBM scientists can now measure how long information can stay in an individual atom, getting one step closer to the goal of computing at the atomic level.

As the computer industry continues chasing Moore's Law and components continue to shrink, the march continues to the inevitable end point: the atom. IBM researchers say they now have made a significant breakthrough that brings the industry a step closer to that end point.

In an article that will be published Sept. 24 in Science magazine, IBM researchers are outlining a new technique that can measure how long a single atom can hold data, and that enables scientists to record, study and visualize the magnetism of these atoms at extremely fast speeds.

Using IBM's STM (Scanning Tunneling Microscope) in a fashion similar to a high-speed camera, researchers at IBM Research's Almaden Lab can study the behavior of atoms at a speed 1 million times faster than before.

This ability to record and study atom behavior at nanosecond speeds opens up several avenues of research for the scientists because they now can add time as a dimension in their experiments. The results of all this could impact everything from solar cells to quantum computing to nanoscale data storage capabilities.

"If you take Moore's Law to the end, where you end up at is the atom," Andreas Heinrich, IBM Research staff member and group leader of nanoscale science at the Almaden Lab, said in an interview with eWEEK, adding that the question then becomes, Can you do computing and other work at that scale? "If you can do this, you reach ... not only for IBM, but for the entire industry, the holy grail."

IBM scientists have been using the STM for two decades to study matter at the atomic scale, which Big Blue officials said could lead to innovations around computing and data storage. With the new technique using the STM, researchers can study the behavior of atoms at the nanosecond level, whereas before it was at the millisecond level, Heinrich said.

That's important, according to IBM. The difference between a nanosecond and a second is equivalent to the difference between a second and 30 years, according to company officials. Now, because of the new technique, scientists can see the physics that happens during that time that they couldn't have seen before.

"What this breakthrough is really about is [moving from] milliseconds to nanoseconds," Heinrich said.

"This technique developed by the IBM Research team is a very important new capability for characterizing small structures and understanding what is happening at fast time scales," Michael Crommie, professor of physics at the University of California Berkeley and a faculty researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, said in a statement. "I am particularly excited by the possibility of generalizing it to other systems, such as photovoltaics, where a combination of high spatial and time resolution will help us to better understand various nanoscale processes important for solar energy, including light absorption and separation of charge."

Previously, scientists had determined that an iron atom could hold data for a nanosecond. Now, with the new STM technique, they found that when putting a non-magnetic copper atom next to the iron atom, that iron atom could retain data for up to 200 nanoseconds. Being able to see that change means that scientists can now experiment to see how they can impact the behavior of atoms to get desired results.

According to IBM, the breakthrough could impact quantum computers, which are systems that aren't bound by the binary nature of traditional computers. Gaining a greater understanding of the nature of atoms could lead to researchers being able to perform advanced computations that currently aren't possible.