Scientists at IBM said on Thursday that they had moved closer to developing ultra-tiny storage devices(imagine 30,000 full-length movies on an iPod) by learning how to steer single atoms in a way that could create building blocks for such hard drives. Understanding and manipulating the behavior of atoms is critical to harnessing the power of nanotechnology, which deals with particles tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair. "One of the most basic properties that every atom has is that it behaves like a little magnet," said Cyrus Hirjibehedin, a scientist at International Business Machines Corp.'s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, in a phone interview. "If you can keep that magnetic orientation stable over time, then you can use that to store information. That is how your hard drive works. What we are trying to understand is how this fundamental property works for a single atom." Hirjibehedin and colleague Andreas Heinrich studied this property—known as magnetic anisotropy—in individual iron atoms using a special microscope developed at IBM.
IBM colleagues in Zurich, Switzerland, meanwhile, stumbled on a way to manipulate molecules to switch on and off, a basic function needed in computer logic. They had been evaluating the vibration of a molecule when they noticed it had distinct switching capabilities. Heinrich, who is familiar with the work, said the discovery is especially important because the switching action did not alter the framework of the molecule. Switches inside computer chips work like a light switch, turning on and off the flow of electrons that ultimately make up the electrical circuits of computer processors. Molecular switches could be used to store information and would lead to super-fast, super-tiny computer chips. These two discoveries, which were published in the journal Science, couldone day form the basis of future devices the IBM scientists were reluctant to even speculate about.
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