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Symbolic image of light interacting with a gold surface with 4-fold symmetric Archimedean spirals: Plasmons with orbital angular momentum are excited and swirl towards the center.

Combining Twisted Light and Plasmons Could Supercharge Data Storage

Research that started out with the humble aim of growing an atomically flat, single crystalline gold surface, ultimately morphed into a team of German and Israeli scientists using the gold surface they came up with for a novel form of data storage.

In research published in the journal Science, a team of scientists from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the German universities of Stuttgart, Duisburg-Essen, and Kaiserslautern and the University of Dublin in Ireland has developed a way to exploit the orbital angular momentum of light in a confined device using plasmonics.

Prior to this work, some scientists suggested using the orbital angular momentum of photons as a means for data storage in the open air or in optical fibers. This latest research makes it possible to envision it being used in confined, chip-scale devices.

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Molecules self assembling

The Nobelists and Their Molecular Machines

While the prospects of molecular nanotechnology—the catch-all term for molecular manufacturing in which nanoscale machines are programmed to build macroscale objects from the bottom up—has remained mostly in the realm of science fiction, the awarding of last year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry to a trio of scientists who pioneered the development of nanomachines has buoyed hope that at least we should begin to see more research in the field.

More of this research is already trickling in since the Nobel Prize announcement. Two teams of researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) in Spain have cited this most recent Nobel Prize as a context for their work in developing self-assembling materials based on peptides (compounds consisting of two or more amino acids linked together in a chain) that can stack themselves on top of each other to form nanotubes.

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Dr. Christopher Lutz of IBM Research - Almaden in San Jose, Calif. with IBM Research's Nobel-prize winning microscope he used to store data on a single atom magnet.

Single Atom Serves as World's Smallest Magnet and Data Storage Device

An international team of researchers have produced the world’s smallest magnet and demonstrated that it’s possible to use that magnet—an individual atom—to store a single bit of data.

Until this latest research, led by teams at IBM Research Almaden and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, molecules were the smallest-ever data storage units. To put this advance in context, think about it like this: With one bit per atom, it would be conceivable to store an entire iTunes library of 35 million songs on a device no bigger than a credit card.

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New Microscopy Tech Offers a Kind of “Nano-GPS” for Measuring Magnetism of Atoms

Researchers at IBM Research Alamaden have developed a new approach to measuring the magnetic field of individual atoms that for the first time gives scientists the ability to put the sensor exactly next to the atom they want to measure, providing them with a strong and direct signal of the magnetic field. The energy resolution that the new technology provides is more than 1000 times higher than other microscopic techniques, according to its inventors.

The technique involves purposely placing a "sensor" atom near the “target” atom to measure the latter’s magnetic field.  These sensor atoms—also known as electron spin resonance (ESR) sensors—were first developed by IBM back in 2015 and are used inside of scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs). STMs—which detect the tunneling of electrons between the an ultra-sharp probe as it’s scanned across a surface—allow atom-by-atom engineering, so that the positions of both the sensor and the target atoms can be imaged to locate them with atomic precision.

This latest advance in STMs with ESR technology described in the journal Nature Nanotechnology marks a distinct change from how the magnetic fields of atoms have previously been measured.

“We have shown in the paper how to perform a kind of ‘nano-GPS’ imaging, to detect where other magnetic atoms were located purely by the spin resonance signal on several fixed sensor atoms,” says Christopher Lutz, a staff scientist at IBM Research Almaden. “We intend to use this to image where magnetic centers are in molecules and nanostructures on the surface.”

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DNA double helix

Sudoku Hints at New Encoding Strategy for DNA Data Storage

Researchers affiliated with Columbia University and the New York Genome Center have reported a new encoding method that makes it possible to come close to the theoretical maximum for DNA data storage.

In research published in the journal Science, the team says its encoding method achieved a 60% increase in storage capacity over previously reported efforts, resulting in a jaw-dropping storage density of 215 petabytes per gram of DNA. For perspective, one petabyte is equivalent to 13.3 years worth of HD video.

Last year, Microsoft announced that its researchers had set the DNA data-storage record of 200 megabytesWhile that was a good indication of how far DNA data storage had come, it remained pretty short on detail, with the announcement coming only in blog post on the Microsoft website. A peer-reviewed paper seemed to be sorely lacking to those in the field.

“Our work is the first one in the literature to show that you can get very close to the theoretical capacity of DNA storage architecture,” said Yaniv Erlich, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Columbia and Core Member of the NY Genome Center, in an interview with IEEE Spectrum. In fact, Erlich and his co-author Dina Zielinski of the New York Genome Center report coming within 14% of the theoretical limit.

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On an insulating polymide tape, the deposited patterned crystal violet spots

Mass Spectrometry Gets a New Power Source and a New Life

Mass spectrometry is a chemical analysis and detection tool that has been around for 130 years. In that time there have been so many tweaks and improvements that observers have become a bit blasé about the next big leap in its development.

But the latest improvement out of the Georgia Institute of Technology may be the biggest yet for the venerable old analytical tool. In research described in Nature Nanotechnology, the Georgia Tech researchers have managed to make mass spectrometry more sensitive than ever before, more portable, cheaper, and even safer. All of these advancements were accomplished by replacing the direct current power source typically used as a power source with triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs). You can see a demonstration of the technology at work in the video below.

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Self-assembled structure of PTCDA on heterogeneous borophene/Ag substrates

Borophene Takes Big Step Towards Electronic Devices

Just three years ago, we were reporting on the first tentative steps in producing a two-dimensional (2D) form of boron that came to be known as borophene. Since then most of the work with borophene has been aimed at synthesis as well as characterization of the material’s properties.

Now researchers at Northwestern University—led by Mark Hersam, a Northwestern professor at the forefront of investigating the potential of a variety of 2D materials—have taken a significant step beyond merely characterizing borophene and have started to move towards making nanoelectronic devices from it.

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A MEMS-based atomic force microscope developed by engineers at UT Dallas is about 1 square centimeter in size

New Paradigm in Microscopy: Atomic Force Microscope on a Chip

Ever since the 1980s, when Gerd Binnig of IBM first heard that “beautiful noise” made by the tip of the first scanning tunneling microscope (STM) dragging across the surface of an atom and later developed the atomic force microscope (AFM), these microscopy tools have been the bedrock of nanotechnology research and development.

AFMs have continued to evolve over the years, and at one time, IBM even looked into using them as the basis of a memory technology in the company’s Millipede project. Despite all this development, AFMs have remained bulky and expensive devices, costing as much as US $50,000.

Now, researchers at the University of Texas (UT) Dallas have turned this paradigm on its ear by developing an AFM that uses microelectromechanical (MEMS) technology. The upshot: The entire AFM fits onto a computer chip about one square centimeter in size.

In research described in the journal IEEE Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, the scientists connected the MEMS-based AFM to a small printed circuit board containing all the circuitry, sensors, and other miniaturized components that control the device’s movements.

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Rendering of the ultra-flexible probe in neural tissue

Flexibility Gives Nanothread Brain Probes Long-Term Durability

For over two decades, electrodes implanted in the brain have made it possible to electrically measure the activity of individual neurons. While the technology has continued to progress over the years, the implanted probes have continued to suffer from poor recording ability brought on by biocompatibility issues, limiting their efficacy over the long term.

It turns out that size matters: In this case, the smaller the better. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed neural probes made from a flexible nanoelectronic thread (NET). These probes are so thin and tiny that when they are implanted, they don’t trigger the human body to create scar tissue, which limits their recording efficacy. Without that hindrance, the threadlike probes can work effectively for months, making it possible to follow the long-term progression of such neurovascular and neurodegenerative diagnoses as strokes and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

In research described in the journal Science Advances, UT researchers fabricated the multilayered nanoprobes out of five to seven nanometer-scale functional layers with a total thickness of around 1 micrometer.

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A nanoelectrode array and its CMOS control chip sit at the bottom of a shallow well where a network of cells will grow.

Nanoelectrode Array Sees Signals From Inside a Network of Cells

Researchers at Harvard University have developed a nanoelectrode array capable of imaging the electrical signals within the living cells. While other technologies have been able to measure these signals, this new complimentary metal oxide semiconductor nanoelectrode array (called a CNEA) can measure these signal across an entire network of cells.

“It’s similar to an imager combining the light signal from each detector in a pixel array to form a picture; the CNEA combines the electrical signals from within each cell to map the network level electrical activities of the entire cell culture,” explained Donhee Ham, a professor at Harvard involved in the research, in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum.

This network-level intracellular recording capability can be used, for example, to examine the effect of pharmaceuticals on a network of heart muscle tissue, enabling tissue-based screening of drug candidates. It could also help better understand how cells communicate with each other across a network.

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IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
New York City
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