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Icons of Progress

Scanning Tunneling Microscope

More than a quarter century ago, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer devised the revolutionary scanning tunneling microscope, earning them the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics and catalyzing the field of nanotechnology. The new, quantum-based discipline was ahead of its time, holding great promise for future innovations in a wide range of industries from computer and information technology to healthcare, consumer goods and transportation. More recently, theory and experimentation have led to practical application and the introduction of nanotech products.

Nanotech on the road

The breakthroughs stemming from the scanning tunneling microscope may be microscopic, but their benefits have become readily apparent throughout industry. For more than a decade, automobile manufacturers have been incorporating nanomaterials throughout their cars. For example, the performance and longevity of tires has improved as a result of molecular compounds derived from nanotechnology. Advanced body paint containing nanoparticles has led to a much longer-lasting car exterior. Bumpers are also now commonly made with nanocrystals for increased strength and passenger safety.

Innovations in healing

Biomedical science is poised to benefit from a wide range of nanotechnology devices and techniques. In the near future, molecular structures may enable the delivery of medicines to precise targets within the body. For example, chemotherapy eventually could use nanotechnology to attack cancer cells with greater accuracy and far fewer side effects. One promising approach uses a virus—nature’s own nanobot—with 17 nanometers of “cargo space” to carry an atomic-scale drug payload.

Purifying the world’s water

The United Nations anticipates that by 2050 a critical shortage of drinking water will affect approximately one-half of the world’s population. Responding to the crisis, IBM and other scientists from around the world have created nanomembrane filters. The highly energy-efficient technology eliminates salt and unwanted elements, such as arsenic, from public and private water supplies to help maintain drinking water quality.

Advancing renewable energy

As energy security and sustainability become global concerns, the use of nanotechnology in the energy sector only continues to grow. Take wind turbines, for example. Nano-based lubricants can keep the power generating turbines spinning efficiently and continuously, while nanomaterials can protect their exterior. The coatings help prevent excessive accumulation of ice and dirt on the turbine’s shaft and blades, which are now made from nanocomposite materials for added strength.

A flatter flash

In 2003, IBM was one of the first companies to manufacture microprocessors at a thickness of 90 nanometers—one thousand times thinner than a human hair. Since that time 90-nanometer technology has steadily advanced, providing enhanced processing and storage capacity. One of the most recent products to debut is thin film flash storage flash memory technology. The memory device contains silicon nanocrystals that can provide increased product reliability. A version of the technology also can include a new form of electrically replaceable and programmable read-only memory (EEPROM).