IBM breakthrough could measure rapid changes to atoms

Scientists at IBM Research say they have pioneered a way to measure environmental effects on individual atoms much more quickly than was previously possible.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
On Friday, IBM Research will publish a paper in Science laying out its recent breakthrough allowing its scientists to measure rapid changes in behavior of individual atoms. IBM Research

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Scientists at IBM Research say they have figured out for the first time how to record rapid changes at the level of individual atoms.

Until now, it has usually taken hours to get a picture of what is happening to a single atom. But according to IBM Research, scientists at Big Blue's $6 billion R&D unit have figured out how to use a scanning tunneling microscope to record and study very fast changes at the atomic level. It is thought that the scientists will now be able to record atoms' behavior at speeds of up to 1,000,000 times faster than was previously thought possible.

And while it's not known what the practical implications of the innovation could be, it's thought that understanding how long an individual atom can hold on to information could one day take Moore's Law to its extreme and extend data storage much closer to the particle level. It is also thought that the advance could help in the creation of much more efficient photovoltaic cells, and with quantum computing.

The scientists will publish their findings (see video below) Friday in the journal Science.

According to Sebastian Loth, the post-doctoral researcher at IBM's Almaden Research Center here who was the lead writer on the paper, the team's breakthrough is tantamount to advancing the state of imaging of atoms from the status quo being a still camera--where most of the physics was already over by the time any image was captured--to a new era of movie camera-like capabilities where the imagery is captured in near-real time.

One chief advantage of the new technology, Loth said, is that researchers should be able to determine for the first time the effect changes in the environment around an atom affect the particle. For example, he said, when using a needle inside the scanning tunnel microscope to measure atomic behavior, it was previously possible, over the course of several hours, to determine that an iron atom could retain information for a nanosecond. Now, scientists can see that when placing that same iron atom near a copper atom, its data retention time increases to up to 200 nanoseconds.

And while that is still a minuscule amount of time, Loth acknowledged, being able to see that change, and understand how variations in the atomic environment affect individual atoms could one day be a huge advantage in building new products. In other words, he said, scientists can now go looking for ways to affect atoms that will give them results they desire.

"If the environment affects atoms," Loth said, "I can do something with that. I can change the environment. I can move atoms together and try different things."

He added that, "We're not building the next computer, but [we are looking to see] what we can do at the end of data density."

The scanning tunneling microscope IBM used to achieve its breakthrough. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The truth is, Loth added, that it might take 20 more years to figure out how to build products around this kind of advanced atomic understanding, and it may well never result in anything new coming to market. But by the same token, understanding the far reaches of the data density spectrum, or how photovoltaic cells can be built to be far more efficient than ever before with such technology in mind could alter the face of electronics forever. As well, the breakthrough could open up entirely new research areas, Loth suggested.

Spinning atoms
The new technology works, Loth explained, by placing the tip of the scanning tunneling microscope on top of an atom and blasting that atom with a burst of voltage. When hit with this rush of electrons, the atom starts to spin. And by probing the atom to see what orientation it is in when it stops spinning, scientists can measure the effect of the voltage blast on the atom.

Until now, however, that process only allowed scientists to come up with an aggregate measurement for a single atom by looking at groups of them and extrapolating. But with this new process, they will be able to measure effects on any individual atom at any time--and that's crucial, Loth said, because atoms are heavily affected by what's going on in their environment. "So that's why it's so important to [measure] at the individual atom level," Loth said, "instead of groups."

One thing that's notable about the IBM Research team's breakthrough, Loth said, is that the new understanding of how to use a scanning tunneling microscope will mean that labs all over the world--or at least anyone who has such a microscope--will be able to apply the new knowledge to their research.

"Every university can do this research and develop with all the other tools for scanning tunneling microscopes," he said. "They can build things one atom at a time."

Correction at 1:36 p.m. PDT: This story initially gave an incorrect figure for the increase in monitoring speed. Scientists believe they will now be able to record atoms' behavior at speeds of up to 1,000,000 times faster than was previously thought possible.