Atom Needs 2 Billion Times Less Force To Move Than A Penny, IBM Discovers - InformationWeek

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Atom Needs 2 Billion Times Less Force To Move Than A Penny, IBM Discovers

Understanding the amount of energy required to move an atom is crucial if scientists are to continue to make advances in atomic scale computing and other nanotechnology applications.

In a scientific first that could pave the way for breakthroughs in nanoscale computing, researchers at IBM have successfully measured the precise amount of force needed to move a single atom, the company announced Friday.

Not surprisingly, it isn't much.

Using a device called a sensitive atomic force microscope, scientists at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose discovered that moving an atom across a copper surface requires 17 piconewtons. By contrast, the force needed to raise a copper penny is, at 30 billion piconewtons, 2 billion times greater.

IBM said that understanding the amount of energy required to move an atom is crucial if scientists are to continue to make advances in atomic scale computing and other nanotechnology applications. The company likens the knowledge to the force and materials measurements used in the construction of bridges and high rises -- applied on an infinitesimally smaller scale.

"This provides fundamental information about atomic scale fabrication and could pave the way for new data storage and memory devices," said Andreas Heinrich, lead scientist in the scanning tunneling microscopy lab at IBM Almaden, in a statement.

Almaden is the same lab where IBM researchers in 1989 first developed a method for precisely positioning individual atoms. They proved their breakthrough by assembling Xenon atoms into a rendering of the company's initials.

The latest breakthrough extends that work by measuring the forces involved in moving atoms.

An atomic force microscope uses a tiny tuning fork to vibrate an atom. The fork's frequency changes as it gets closer to its subject. The changes are measured to determine the amount of force being exerted.

In addition to advanced storage devices, the discovery could help chipmakers use nanoscale materials to manufacture high-speed processors that will keep Moore's Law -- which holds that the number of transistors that can fit on a chip doubles every two years -- intact for the foreseeable future.

IBM's findings will be published in the Feb. 22 issue of Science magazine.

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