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Sub-atomic-scale Writing Using a Quantum Hologram Sets New Size Record

Menlo Park, Calif.-Physicists have set a new world record for the smallest writing, with features of letters as small as 0.3 nanometers, or roughly one third of a billionth of a meter. The accomplishment demonstrates that information can be stored more densely than previously thought. The research was conducted at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES), a joint institute of Stanford University and the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
 
In achieving this feat, Stanford researchers have reclaimed bragging rights for creating the worlds smallest writing. The researchers encoded the letters "S" and "U" (as in Stanford University) within the interference patterns formed by quantum electron waves on the surface of a sliver of copper. The wave patterns even project a tiny hologram of the data, which can be viewed with a powerful microscope.
 
Working in a vibration-proof basement lab, researchers Chris Moon and Hari Manoharan began their writing project with a scanning tunneling microscope, a device that not only sees objects at a very small scale but can also be used to move around individual atoms. The team used it to drag single carbon monoxide molecules into a desired pattern on a copper chip the size of a fingernail.
 
On the two-dimensional surface of the copper, electrons zip around, behaving as both particles and waves, bouncing off the carbon monoxide molecules the way ripples in a shallow pond might interact with stones placed in the water. The ever-moving waves interact with the molecules and with each other to form standing "interference patterns" that vary with the placement of the molecules.
 
By altering the arrangement of the molecules, the researchers can create different waveforms, effectively encoding information for later retrieval. To encode and read out the data at unprecedented density, the scientists have devised a new technology, Electronic Quantum Holography.
 
In the new holography, the 2-dimensional "molecular holograms" are illuminated not by laser light but by the electrons that are already in the copper in great abundance. The resulting "electronic object" can be read with the scanning tunneling microscope.Several images can be stored in the same hologram, each created at a different electron wavelength. The researchers read them separately, like stacked pages of a book.
 
The quest for small writing has played a role in the development of nanotechnology for 50 years, beginning decades before "nano" became a household word. The true significance of the work lies in storing more information in less space.
 
The research was supported by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences within the Department of Energy Office of Science, the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the Stanford-IBM Center for Probing the Nanoscale.
 

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