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Invention of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) in Zurich in 1981 marked the birth of nanoscience and nanotechnology

IBM scientists receive The Economist Innovation Award for providing the first glimpse of the nanoworld

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Zurich, Switzerland, 14 September 2004—Three scientists of IBM Research - Zurich have been awarded this year's Economist "No Boundaries" Innovation Award in San Francisco. The prize was bestowed to Gerd Binnig, Heinrich Rohrer and Christoph Gerber for the invention and development of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which marked the birth of nanoscience and nanotechnology. The Economist Annual Innovation Summit & Awards celebrates the individuals and best practices that drive the most successful innovations that transform our global economy.

The invention of the STM in 1981 afforded scientists their first glimpse of the world of atoms. The revolutionary microscope, for which Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer received the 1986 Nobel prize in physics, has expanded the boundaries of our knowledge by revealing the topography of surfaces and processes on the atomic scale in 3D.

The STM, however, is not a traditional microscope. Rather than showing a direct image, it uses a very sharp stylus to scan the surface of a material. Recording the vertical movement of the stylus makes it possible to study the structure of the surface, atom by atom.

As the STM evolved, its capabilities and those of related instruments have greatly enhanced the abilities of research scientists to explore a wide variety of atomic-scale structures and properties, and even to manipulate individual atoms and molecules. In 1990, IBM scientists famously went on to use the STM to position 35 xenon atoms to spell "IBM".

STM technology out of the IBM lab in Zurich now plays a key role in nanoscience and nanotechnology, with hundreds of companies worldwide developing instruments for applications in a wide range of fields such as semiconductor physics, microelectronics, chemistry and biology.

IBM itself is furthering the practical applications of STM-based technologies. One is the so-called Millipede project. The aim of this project is to develop a high-density storage system based on micromechanical components derived from scanning probe instruments. Tiny depressions melted by a tip into a polymer medium represent stored data bits that can be read by the same tip. This thermomechanical storage technique is capable of achieving data densities on the order of hundreds of Gigabits per square inch, well beyond the expected limits for magnetic recording.

Press contact

Nicole Strachowski
Media Relations
IBM Research - Zurich
Tel +41 44 724 84 45

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