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Pushing Atoms

March 12, 2008

Scientists have determined how much force it takes to move a single atom.


What it takes to move an atom. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

For the first time, researchers have measured the force it takes to move a single atom: a force that makes a gentle brush from a cat’s whisker look like an asteroid impact. The team included Markus Ternes, a postdoctoral fellow at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in California. Depending on the surface it was on, Ternes says moving a cobalt atom required a force as small as 17 piconewtons.

MARKUS TERNES (IBM Almaden Research Center):
And to put it in perspective, to move an atom you need about a billionth of the force you would need to lift a piece of chocolate.

To do it, they created a super-vacuum at minus-454 degrees Fahrenheit: a temperature so cold that atoms don’t bounce around on their own. The findings could eventually help scientists who are working to build brand new substances, one atom at a time. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.