Researchers Image Atoms and Bonds Within Silicon
Atomic force microscopy (AFM) is a rather extreme form of microscopy as it moves a probe with a single-atom tip over a surface to make measurements. The forces between materials cause the probe to be deflected by the atoms it moves over, and this deflection can be recorded and analyzed to visualize the sample with tremendous detail. Now researchers at the University of Alberta have applied AFM to study a silicon surface and to even fabricate patterns in the silicon.
While AFM has existed for quite some time now, it is not often used with silicon, and has never been used like this before because it can potentially damage the silicon, but the researchers decided to take the risk because of what success could offer. Eventually the researchers discovered ways to minimize these challenges, allowing them to move around individual silicon atoms. With this capability, atomically designed structures can be built, providing a new level of control over the electrons that will be flowing through them. The researchers were also able to use AFM to measure the electronic bonds between the silicon atoms, another first that allows new insight into how electrons behave as they travel across silicon structures.
The vision at least one of the researchers has is to see this work used to create ultra-fast and ultra-low-power silicon circuits that could potentially use ten thousand times less power than what is available today. It may take a while before we get there, but this step has now been made and it will not just be electronic computers that may benefit from this, but future quantum computers as well.