The tall, curly-haired, handsome, professor of physics at Stanford University, is using the precise motions of the tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), as a tweezer to pick up atoms and rearrange them. He can demonstrate it by dragging a cobalt atom across the surface of copper atoms. The process results in a whining, creaking, clunking noise as the chemical bonds form and break.
Those are the sounds of nanotechnology, courtesy of Prof Manoharan, who was one among the 57 scientists honored last week with the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. He was nominated for the award by the Department of Defense for being one of the most promising young researchers in the nation.
According to scientists on the cutting edge of nanotechnology, Manoharan’s achievement is “a technical tour de force, an elegant piece of work.” The new frontier of manipulating the electronic properties of atoms that Manoharan has opened up may have energized the scientific community. "I´m amazed each day that I can build these structures," Manoharan admitted in an interview with New Scientist. "The prospect of what we will discover excites me to no end. We can go in any direction we want."
“My research program seeks to apply the bottom-up approach of atomic and molecular manipulation to a variety of outstanding problems in science and technology,” explains Manoharan. “The effort is interdisciplinary in nature, centering on physics and engineering but involving ideas, techniques, and conundrums from other fields such as chemistry, biology, materials science, and information technology,” he adds.
The primary experimental apparatus for Manoharan’s investigations are custom-built low-temperature scanning probe microscopes capable of both studying and controlling matter at atomic length scales.
“For the first time, we are poised to explore critical science starting from the basic building blocks of matter—single atoms. So the question now becomes: rather than work our way down from the macroscopic level, what can we learn if we build up from the atomic realm?” Manoharan explains.
Last year, an audience at the University of Arizona “listened in awe” at this "song of the atom", as Manoharan lectured on atomic and molecular assembly. According to Manoharan, "Extending measurements down to the smallest-length scales of single atoms and molecules" enables scientists to manipulate materials on the molecular scale, Manoharan said.
Working with such tiny measurements can allow for building "from the bottom up" and to potentially make new "designer molecules," Manoharan said. "The practical payoffs are vast," he said, "but we have a ways to go between turning the science into viable technologies."
And four years ago, Manoharan led the team of IBM scientists that discovered a way to transport information on the atomic scale using the wave nature of electrons instead of conventional wiring. The new phenomenon, called the "quantum mirage" effect, may enable data transfer within future nanoscale electronic circuits too small to use wires.
The patent based on this technology is claimed to be an “invention to provide a system and method for transferring information between spatially distinct points without requiring the usual wiring and current transfer of conventional electronics,” and it claims to “overcome the limitations of conventional microelectronics, and embody a new paradigm for information transfer.”
Much of the work in nanotechnology is focused on "proof of principle." An example of this, as Manoharan explains, is the experimental success of teleporting an atom - or moving it instantaneously from one place to another - in the laboratory. Although it was moved only by a few nanometers and was not reproduced to 100 percent completion, proving that an atom can be teleported is still proof of principle, he said.
The projection spans only a tiny distance: about 10 nanometres, still it offers the tantalising promise of transferring information within tiny circuits of the future in which wires are obsolete and the components are single atoms.
The eerie image may also let physicists probe an atom without disturbing it directly. That´s an intriguing prospect in a miniworld where even a few photons of light can alter the states of particles. The scientists think it may even be possible to forge a chemical bond with the mirage by moving a compatible atom next to it. That would create a weird hybrid molecule that Manoharan calls "half real and half ghost".
Manoharan´s lab equipment for atomic manipulation includes a complex set of vacuum chambers and scanning microscopes and requires a temperature of slightly above absolute zero to maintain precision. The experiments are so sensitive that "just talking in the lab is enough to interfere with the results," he said.
"Things are very exploratory right now," Manoharan said. "We built a whole new playing field, and now we´re playing around to see what´s possible."
That’s why at his Stanford laboratory Manoharan conducts research projects involving single-atom and single-molecule manipulation to assemble nanostructures that exhibit novel physical phenomena.
In recent years these pursuits have involved pushing to single “spins” for novel applications in quantum information, communication, and data storage. The nanoscale manipulation techniques developed in his laboratory also have applications in several other fields beyond basic science, ranging from engineering to chemistry to biotechnology.
After earning his Ph.D. at Princeton University, Manoharan worked as a research scientist at IBM Almaden Research Center for 3 years before joining the physics faculty of Stanford University in 2001. He also holds courtesy faculty appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Department of Materials Science & Engineering.
Manoharan is a native of Oklahoma City, and is of Sri Lankan ancestry.
Manoharan holds several patents in the area of nanotechnology. He has received worldwide recognition for his achievements in nanoscience and his work has been featured in Nature; Physics Today; New Scientist; leading international newspapers such as The New York Times and Asahi Shinbun; broadcast interviews on TechTV; MSNBC; BBC News; and other venues. He was profiled by U. S. News & World Report in its selection of Innovators of 2001. Recent awards include the IBM Invention Achievement Award (2000), IBM TEAM Patent Award (2000), Research Corporation Research Innovation Award (2002), ONR Young Investigator Award (2002), NSF CAREER Award (2002), an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow in 2002, and the 2004 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.
Manoharan’s current research projects, drawn from several research frontiers, include: ·Nanoassembly using Atomic and Molecular Manipulation ·Studies of Isolated and Interacting Magnetic Moments ·Local Probes of Correlated Electrons in Reduced Dimensions ·Local Response of Novel Superconductors ·Exploring New Paradigms in Computation ·Atomic and Molecular Electronics ·Organic Molecules and the Structure of Life.
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