Scientists from IBM's Zürich Research Laboratory
and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have found a way to alter
a single atom.
The researchers used a low-temperature scanning tunneling microscope
and a voltage pulse to place an electron on an individual gold atom, then
remove the electron. Regular atoms are neutral, while ions -- atoms with
more or fewer electrons -- carry a charge.
The gold atom, positioned on an ultrathin film of sodium chloride,
remained stable during the operation, despite the change in charge. The
gold atom was kept stable by small changes in the positions of nearby
atoms in the film.
Ions have different chemical and physical properties than corresponding
neutral atoms. Being able to switch an individual atom to an ion and back
promises a new way to control attributes like chemical reactivity, optical
properties, and magnetic properties, according to the researchers.
This control could eventually lead to devices that work at the
atomic scale, like a nonvolatile memory cell that stores information in
a single atom. Practical atomic-scale memory would increase the amount
of data that can be stored in a given area by 10,000 times, according
to the researchers.
Charged atoms can be used to influence nearby molecules as well,
according to the researchers.
The work appeared in the July 23, 2004 issue of Science.
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