Building With Atoms

By Andrew Grant and Bruce SchechterSep 23, 2010 5:00 AM


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“Nanotechnology”—anything constructed on the scale of a nanometer, just a few times the size of an atom —has a quintessential science fiction ring. Yet you almost surely have some nanotechnology sitting around you. Try doing a Google search on the word. There: You just used it.

The revolution began quietly in 1981, when Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM in Zurich invented the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which could read a surface atom by atom. Over the last decade, researchers adapted STMs to probe organic molecules and to build simple devices using atoms like Lego blocks. At the same time, electronics engineers were working their way toward the nanoscale from the top down, cramming ever more (and faster) transistors onto silicon chips. That effort allowed the speed of computer processors to keep doubling every 18 months or so, an advance known as Moore’s law. By the early 2000s, transistor size had dipped below a ten-millionth of a meter, bringing computers and cell phones into the nano realm. And the progress goes on: Late last year, researchers in Finland and Australia built an experimental transistor out of a single atom of phosphorus.

The next stage of atomic technology may involve replacing silicon with other substances optimized for the nanoscale. “Materials change properties when you enter into this new world,” says James Yardley, director of the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center at Columbia University. He and his colleagues were among the first to discover one-atom-thick sheets of carbon called graphene. In theory, electrons should move through these sheets with essentially no resistance. “If you could do that, you could transmit electricity across the country with no loss,” Yardley says. Last February, IBM scientists created a graphene transistor that can switch on and off 100 billion times a second, more than twice as fast as its silicon counterpart.

Real-world nanotechnology has implications far beyond computing—implications that could finally give substance to the field’s old science fiction visions. Graphene is so strong that it has some scientists scheming ways to build elevators into space. In the meantime, nanoscale carbon structures are being developed for fast-charging batteries, efficient solar cells, and implantable drug-delivery capsules. “We have the knowledge and tools to make all that happen,” Yardley says.

Bruce Schechter has edited science magazines including Technology Illustrated. Andrew Grant is a DISCOVER reporter and researcher.

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