Imagine having a tiny magnetic chip inside your sweater or jacket in which your favourite music, books, movies and the entire city phone book is stored. Just a fantasy? Think again. Four Ohio University physicists are working to develop the tiny magnet that could make this and other technological phenomena possible.
A new $1.1 million Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT) grant could bring this concept closer to reality. The four-year grant is funded by the National Science Foundation and will support research and a public outreach program in nanotechnology, a growing field that explores activity at the molecular and sub-molecular level. Arthur Smith, an associate professor of physics and astronomy, is leading the group's efforts.
In the past three years, the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences has received two NIRT grants - an achievement accomplished by only a few other institutions of Ohio University's size, Smith said. One other university in the state, Ohio State University, also received two NIRT grants from the NSF. This year, 58 universities across the country received funding from the program, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.
The grant will support research into ultra-small magnetism, an atomic property that results from electronic "spin." The spin is a fundamental property of an electron, the basis of the magnetic bits on a computer hard drive. Current drives store information with tiny magnets, but need millions of the devices to do the job.
The tiny magnet that Smith and his team are developing ideally could result in a storage drive at least 100 times smaller, which could revolutionize electronics. The researchers use the needle-like probe of a scanning tunneling microscope to reposition magnetic atoms (such as iron, chromium or cobalt) on a substrate to generate a synthetic nanometer-sized magnet that would be invisible to the naked eye.
The grant also will fund research into nanospintronics, a new area of nanoscience that could help engineers build faster, more powerful computers and electronic devices in the future. Spintronics seeks to isolate the spin from the electron's charge, said Nancy Sandler, a research assistant professor who is involved in the project with Smith and physicists Sergio Ulloa and Saw-Wai Hla. Smith recently developed a method of measuring the direction of spin at the atomic scale, which sheds light on the direction of the magnetism. His group is one of only two in the world that has demonstrated this process.
The NIRT grant also will support three graduate students in physics and two postdoctoral researchers who will work collaboratively towards the goals of the research project. They'll gain experience that will help them obtain future positions in science and engineering fields, Smith said.
The grant will fund an outreach program for area schools as well. The team will present their current research, lead experiments and show videos to explain the field of nanotechnology to high school students.
The project also supports a science-writing position, which will be filled each year of the grant by an Ohio University journalism or science student. The writer will report not only on the department's research projects and on the outreach program, but will write articles that explain different aspects of nanoscale science and technology. Articles will be distributed to local and statewide media outlets and will be available to the general public through the project's Web site.
In 2001, the Department of Physics and Astronomy received its first NIRT grant, one out of 44 awarded nationally that year. The grant provided $1.2 million for research by physicists Victoria Soghomonian (principal investigator), Jean J. Heremans, Sergio Ulloa and Nicholas Bonesteel, and Bruce McCord of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. This team is studying a unique approach to blending nanoscience and electronics. Today's computers use conventional electronics that require costly fabrication techniques, and so the team is exploring how molecular electronics could shrink devices to the nanoscale. The researchers use zeolitic materials as hosts for single-electron transistors, extremely tiny electronic devices. The team also has demonstrated electrical conductivity through DNA molecules and has shown how DNA molecules can be modified to exhibit various electronic properties. The group's work has implications for the future development of quantum computers and memory devices, which could be used in cryptography and information technology.
The first NIRT project involves graduate and undergraduate students as well as two-year technical college students. The effort also has created a new course for non-science majors to introduce nanoscience to a broad audience.