Image: The Art of Invention exhibit
This image, made of 48 iron atoms using IBM's low temperature Scanning Tunneling Microscope, is featured in the "The Art of Invention" exhibit at the United States Patent and Trademark Museum in Alexandria, Va.
updated 9/10/2007 6:28:13 PM ET 2007-09-10T22:28:13

IBM Corp. researchers are touting one of the tiniest pieces of art ever made — an image of the sun made from 20,000 microscopic particles of gold. The precision required is a breakthrough that heralds ultra-miniature sensors, lenses and wires inside nanoscale circuits of the future.

The sun painting, which was a 17th-century alchemist's symbol for gold, was etched on a silicon chip "wafer" with a technique that manipulated gold particles each just 60 nanometers in diameter. That's 60 billionths of a meter; a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide.

Scientists at IBM and elsewhere have been working to manipulate super-small circuits in an effort to continue improving the performance of electronic devices well into the future. Indeed, today's most advanced microprocessors already involve components even smaller than 60 nanometers. And IBM researchers long ago showed they could spell out the company's name in individual atoms.

But the new research, published this month in Nature Nanotechnology, is different because the tiny particles were manipulated directly into their desired places with a method that could be economically reproduced in other nano-scale construction projects, even those with features as small as 2 nanometers. (Beyond that, the physical properties of individual atoms likely would get in the way.)

For example, IBM researchers said the finely controlled placement of nanowires would be necessary for high-performance transistors in molecular-scale chips. Or the tiny arrays someday could be used to test for exceedingly small traces of a disease.

"These are quite fundamental things that could go very broadly," said Gian-Luca Bona, a manager in IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif.

The promise in such ultra-small worlds is leading to a nanotech race inside IBM and rival companies. Recently IBM disclosed that it had developed a method for encoding data on individual atoms.

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