IBM's molecular images may help nanoscale circuits

IBM for the first time images charge distribution in a molecule

IBM researchers for the first time have succeeded in imaging how charge is distributed inside a single molecule, which is a fundamental research breakthrough as scientists try to miniaturize circuitry to the nanometer scale.

IBM is studying molecular structures when put on artificial surfaces so functional molecules in the future can be used as switches or transistors, said Fabian Mohn, an IBM researcher. IBM used advanced microscopy tools and techniques to image how charge is redistributed and arranged when chemical bonds are formed between atoms and molecules on surfaces.

The research breakthrough is a step ahead in understanding, controlling and tweaking molecular structures in electrical devices, Mohn said. For example, there may be a molecule with desirable properties to separate photons into positive and negative charges in each direction, which could help solar cells more effectively convert light to electricity.

The breakthrough is also a step forward in understanding the efficiency of a molecular structure as a switch, diode or transistor, said Michael Crommie, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a faculty researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He was not involved in the IBM research.

"Some people think it's interesting to use molecules as building blocks for electrical devices," Crommie said. "One of the troubles is to figure out how to put molecules, and to do what we want them to do, on surfaces. Many people are working on this."

IBM's technique is a diagnostic tool that allows researchers to better characterize small structures, Crommie said. Molecules are assemblies of atoms in particular configurations connected by chemical bonds, and behave differently depending on the environment. Electrons hold the atoms together and give molecules all of their properties.

There are infinite ways molecular systems can behave, and researchers want to be able to predict molecular behavior on surfaces and tweak structures, Crommie said. For example, IBM's tool could help researchers in Crommie's lab create more effective graphene devices through modifications at an atomic level. Crommie wants to be able to modify the graphene by adding or removing charge, or see how graphene changes the behavior of a molecule.

IBM has been conducting its own research on graphene, last year showing a graphene transistor that can execute 155 billion cycles per second, which was about 50 percent faster than previous experimental transistors shown by the company's researchers. Electron flow is considered to be faster on graphene transistors than conventional transistors, which enables faster data transfers between chips.

However questions remain on whether molecules are feasible as building blocks for semiconductors. It's also hard to predict the ultimate outcome of IBM's breakthrough, and years of research and experimentation are required to figure out whether molecular structures perform rationally in a synthetic environment, Crommie said.

"This is fundamental research. It's not like they are optimizing a process that already exists. They are looking at new material combinations that are not being used in the industry. It's not something that's close to production," Crommie said.

IBM's Mohn said the next step could be to build on the technique further and to connect molecules, and also attach molecules to metal as they build nano-scale devices. The company's ultimate goal is to advance the technology to build electronic devices, but only time will tell where the research goes.

"It's like quantum computing. The idea is in principal it should be useful, but we are not there yet with direct applications," Mohn said.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Agam Shah

IDG News Service
Show Comments



Sansai 6-Outlet Power Board + 4-Port USB Charging Station

Learn more >

Victorinox Werks Professional Executive 17 Laptop Case

Learn more >



Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?