The development, while far from being a practical tool, raises the prospect of biomechanical devices that automatically respond to certain chemical conditions.
The device consists of a number of very thin tabs that look like thin diving boards protruding from the edge of a pool. Each tab is treated to be sensitive to a certain chemical substance that causes the tab to bend when it comes in contact with the target chemical. Examining how these tabs bend can indicate details as minuscule as a deviation in the expected sequence of chemical building blocks that make up DNA, IBM said.
The sensors could be used, for instance, to detect specific molecules in the atmosphere, IBM said. A more sophisticated use could lie in programming robots or other machinery to respond to environmental factors. A robot could open a gate after a chemical command.
The tabs are about as long as a human hair is wide, and a fiftieth as thick.
However, current practical use of the technology is limited by the difficulty of detecting the bending of the tabs, which requires a relatively bulky apparatus such as a laser.
The research is published in today's edition of the journal Science.
IBM has a bigger research and design operation than other computing companies and is willing to fund research that is at best years away from a product. Often that research pays off, though, as IBM's collection of patents becomes leverage in licensing deals.