Stanford redefines what it means to be small

April 14, 2009 10:13:47 AM PDT
Stanford University physicists have broken the record for the world's tiniest writing. They created letters that are just one-third of one-billionth of a meter.

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Deep in the sub-basement of a Stanford University physics building, scientists are downscaling like never before.

"We try to see how small is small and can we go below small, what people thought small was before," Assistant professor of physics Hari Manoharan said.

The modern day "search for small" began 50 years ago when Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman offered a $1,000 prize for anyone who could write the page of a book 25,000 times smaller than normal. Writing at that scale would mean the entire contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica could fit on the head of a pin.

It took 26 years for someone to prove it was possible. A Stanford student wrote the first page of Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" on the head of a pin. He engraved it with a beam of electrons. Five years later, IBM researchers made writing even smaller by spelling out the company name in individual atoms.

Now the record has been broken again by Manoharan and graduate student Chris Moon.

To create the smallest of the small, first they had to go big.

"I started seven years ago on a team that built this microscope," Moon said.

The scanning tunneling microscope is the most stable of its kind in the world. The infrastructure takes up an entire room. To minimize vibration, the room is soundproof and the chamber inside the microscope is more than 450-degrees below zero. At the center is a metal tube, inside that is a metal tip, so sharp it ends in a single atom.

The tip is aimed at a little piece of copper - that is where the writing happens.

"We are magnifying so much we have we have to look at these electrical signals on a computer system," Manoharan said.

The tip scans the copper and feeds electrical data into a computer. The writing is encoded in electron waves on the sliver of copper. When the microscope reads it, it is actually more like a hologram than traditional print.

"Now we are taking a picture of electrons and here we've shaped these electrons to be the shape of an 'S'," Manoharan said.

A computer animation shows the result - letters - written with electrons, even smaller than single atoms.

So far, physicists have written only two letters this way - "S" and "U" - for Stanford University.

So what good is all this research?

In the world of information technology: computers, cell phones and iPods, small is golden.

"It's only by shrinking transistors, electronics, that we get faster computers and we get more improved storage in our hard drives and so forth, the bits get smaller and smaller," Manoharan said.

This latest research into tiny data storage still has a way to go before it can be used in commercial computer chips. But to show how far researchers have come, the writing is so small, that instead of fitting just one set of encyclopedias on the head of a pin, there could be as many as 50.

"There's now a new horizon that we recognize, even below the scale of atoms, both for information and electronics in the future," Manoharan said.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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