How hard do you have to pull on a single atom oflet's saygold to detach it from the end of a chain of like atoms?* It's a measure of the astonishing progress in nanotechnology that questions that once would have interested only physicists or chemists are now being asked by engineers. To help with the answers, a research team at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has built an ultra-stable instrument for tugging on chains of atoms, an instrument that can maneuver and hold the position of an atomic probe to within 5 picometers, or 0.000 000 000 5 centimeters.**
The basic experiment uses a NIST-designed instrument inspired by the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The NIST instrument uses as a probe a fine, pure gold wire drawn out to a sharp tip. The probe is touched to a flat gold surface, causing the tip and surface atoms to bond, and gradually pulled away until a single-atom chain (see figure) is formed and then breaks. The trick is to do this with such exquisite positional control that you can tell when the last two atoms are about to separate, and hold everything steady; you can at that point measure the stiffness and electrical conductance of the single-atom chain, before breaking it to measure its strength.
The NIST team used a combination of clever design and obsessive attention to sources of error to achieve results that otherwise would require heroic efforts at vibration isolation, according to engineer Jon Pratt. A fiber-optic system mounted just next to the probe uses the same gold surface touched by the probe as one mirror in a classic optical interferometer capable of detecting changes in movement far smaller than the wavelength of light. The signal from the interferometer is used to control the gap between surface and probe. Simultaneously, a tiny electric current flowing between the surface and probe is measured to determine when the junction has narrowed to the last two atoms in contact. Because there a
|Contact: Michael Baum|
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)