Clocking speed on the nanoscale

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a way to track the reaction time of atoms to electrical fields at a nanoscale, or on the order of a billionth of a second or less. Typically, specialized microscopes for the field of nanotechnology only let scientists see atoms, not their reaction to electricity. But by using a synchrotron light source, called an Advanced Photon Source from the Argonne National Laboratory, the scientists were able to generate a tightly focused beam of X-rays on a thin film, which was made of so-called ferroelectric material by one of the scientists. (Ferroelectric materials respond to electric fields by expanding or contracting their crystal lattice structures.) This way, the scientists said, the X-Rays can reflect and trace fast pulses of an atom's movement when subjected to electrical signals.

"You can see in time how the crystal structure (of the material) changes as the switching polarization propagates through the lattice," Alexei Grigoriev, a UW-Madison postdoctoral fellow and the lead author of the Physical Review Letters paper, said in a statement.

"Now we have a tool to look inside a device and see how it works at the spatial scale of nanometers and the time scale of nanoseconds," he said.

Measuring time in small devices adds new dimension to the fast-growing field of nanotechnology and could be used to develop better memory applications for microelectronics, according to the researchers.

The research appeared in the May edition of the journal Physical Review Letters.

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