Quantum Mechanics in your Processor: Tunneling and Transistors

By the turn of the 19th century, most scientists were convinced that the natural world was composed of atoms. [Einstein’s] 1905 paper on Brownian motion, which links the behavior of tiny particles suspended in a liquid to the movement of atoms put the nail in the coffin of the anti-atom crowd. No one could actually see atoms, however. The typical size of a single atom ranges from 30 to 300 picometers. With the wavelength of visible light coming in at a whopping 400 – 700 nanometers, it is simply not possible to “see” an atom. Not possible with visible light, that is. It was the summer of 1982 when Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, two researchers at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory, show to the world the first ever visual image of an atomic structure. They would be awarded the Nobel prize in physics for their invention in 1986.

The Scanning Tunneling Microscope

IBM’s Scanning Tunneling Microscope, or STM for short, uses an atomically sharp needle that passes over the surface of an (electrically conductive) object – the distance between the tip and object being just a few hundred picometers, or the diameter of a large atom.

[Image Source]
A small voltage is applied between the needle and the object. Electrons ‘move’ from the object to the needle tip. The needle scans the object, much like a CRT screen is scanned. A current from the object to the needed is measured. The tip of the needle is moved up and down so that this current value does not change, thus allowing the needle to perfectly contour the object as it scans. If one makes a visual image of the current values after the scan is complete, individual atoms become recognizable. Some of this might sound familiar, as we’ve seen a handful of people make electron microscopes from scratch. What we’re going to focus on in this article is how these electrons ‘move’ from the object to the needle. Unless you’re well versed in quantum mechanics, the answer might just leave your jaw in the same position as this image will from a home built STM machine.

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Cheap DIY Microscope Sees Individual Atoms

This is not an artist’s rendering, nor a physics simulation. This device held together with hardware-store MDF and eyebolts and connected to a breadboard, is taking pictures of actual atomic structures using actual measurements. All via an 80¢ piezo buzzer? Madness.

Gold atoms in a crystal.

This apparent wizardry is called a scanning tunneling microscope which takes advantage of quantum tunneling. The device brings a needle atomically close to the object to be measured (by hand), applying a small voltage (+-15V), and stopping when it starts to conduct. Depending on the distance between the tip and the target, the voltage varies and does so precisely enough to identify whether an atom is underneath or not, and by how much.

The “pictures” are not photographs like a camera might take from a standard optical microscope, however they are neither guesses nor averages. They are representations of real physical measurements of specific individual atoms as they exist on the infinitesimal area being probed. It “sees” by measuring small voltage changes. Another difference lies in the “scanning.” The probe examines atoms the way one would draw ASCII images – single pixels at a time until an entire atom was drawn. Note that the resolution – as shown in the pictures – is sub-atomic. Sizes of atoms are apparent as are the distances between them. In this they are closer related to the far more expensive Scanning Electron Microscope technology, but are 10-100x zoomier; resolving 0.00000000001m, or 0.00000000039″.

Scan Head – Piezo cut into quadrants

One would presume that dealing with actual atoms requires precision machining vast orders of magnitude beyond the home hobbyist but, no. Any one of us could make this at home or in our hackerspaces, for nearly free. Apparently even sharpening a tip to a single atom is, as [Dan] says “not as hard to achieve as you might think!” You take some tungsten wire and pull on it as you cut so that it shatters diagonally. There are better ways he suggests, but that method is good enough.

The ordinary piezo buzzer that is key to the measurement is chopped into quadrants with an ordinary X-Acto knife by hand. Carefully, because it is fragile, but, nothing more to it than that. There are two better and common methods but they cost hundreds of dollars, not 80 cents. It should be carefully glued since soldering heat will damage it, but, [Dan] soldered his anyway because it was easier. Continue reading “Cheap DIY Microscope Sees Individual Atoms”

Scanning tunneling microscope under GPL3

ChemHacker has posted schematics and code for a scanning tunneling microscope. [Sacha De’Angeli] finalized the proof-of-concept design for version 0.1 and released all of the information under the Gnu general public license version 3. You’ll need to build a sensor from a combination of a needle, a piezo, and a ring of magnets. There’s an analog circuit that gathers data from the probe, which is then formatted by and Arduino and sent to your computer.

We haven’t really dabbled in this type of equipment, though we did cover an STM earlier in the year. Take a look at the video after the break and then help jump-start are imagination by sharing your plans for this equipment in the comments.

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