By Ryan Powers
Using highly precise technology, Ohio University scientists can detect and move the previously undetectable and unmovable: the building blocks of matter: atoms.
They have used this ability to create atomic sized smiley faces.
Dr. Saw-Wai Hla and his team of researchers known as the Hla Group have been key players in the advancement of this emerging scientific feat known as atomic manipulation. Hla is a professor in the physics department.
Hla explained his group’s ongoing research and its possible implications during a Science Cafe on Feb. 5.
Science cafes are casual, scientific presentations held every other Wednesday at the Front Room Coffee House, located on Baker Center’s fourth floor.
Hla said the goal of this Science Cafe was to educate the general public on atomic manipulation.
“I want to share nanoscience and nanotechnology with the public,” Hla said. “Everything, including us, the trees, the planet, is built by atoms, so we should know what the atoms look like and how we can control them.”
The infinitesimal size of atoms is difficult to comprehend, but Hla’s analogy sheds light on the matter: multiplying an average man’s size by 5 million would make him the width of the continental United States. Multiplying an atom by 5 million would make it the size of an ant.
Readers who prefer numbers, consider this: Divide a yardstick into a billion tiny pieces, and the size of one piece is one nanometer. (1 nanometer = 1 meter/1 billion.) Atoms are usually 0.4 nanometers.
Until a few years ago, individual atoms could not be detected because of their size. Not even the strongest microscopes had any hope of seeing them because humans require reflected light waves to see objects, and atoms are smaller than the smallest wavelength of light, making them literally invisible.
How, then, is the Hla group able to produce images of atomic smiley faces? The answer: Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STMs).
STMs do not require light: they use small (300 nanometer by 100 nanometer) needles to scan a surface and feel the atoms, similar to a blind person using a cane to navigate the world. The data is sent to a computer, which uses it to create computer generated images of the atoms.
Once atoms can be detected, Hla said, they can be played with. The same needles that detect the atoms can also move them.
At this stage, Hla said, the basics of atomic manipulation are still being discovered, but he listed possible uses of it in the future (besides creating smiley faces). For instance, research is being done on how to manipulate the atoms in proteins in the brain responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.
Heath Kersell, a doctoral candidate for physics at OU and a member of Hla’s team , said the goal of his research is to aid in the creation of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology can be specifically useful for creating computers, Kersell said.
“Computing smaller might be better because we’re hitting a limit on how small we can make conventional circuits,” Kersell said. “We can use individual molecules and make an array of them and how they’re oriented to express information and make computations.”
The first man-made nanotechnology, according to Hla, was one by two nanometers wide. It was a simple rotor that would rotate when heated up. Kersell hopes nanotechnology will one day advance to the point of creating computers and other technology superior to what currently exists.
The Hla Group will continue its efforts as it hopes to keep OU a leader in atomistic research.