Reporting in the January 30 issue of the journal Nature, California Institute of Technology professor of physics, applied physics, and bioengineering Michael Roukes and his colleagues from Caltech and Case Western Reserve University demonstrate that the tiny mechanism operates at microwave frequencies. The device is a prototype and not yet developed to the point that it is ready to be integrated into a commercial application; nevertheless, it demonstrates the progress being made in the quest to turn nanotechnology into a reality—that is, to make useful devices whose dimensions are less than a millionth of a meter.
This latest effort in the field of NEMS, which is an acronym for "nanoelectromechanical systems," is part of a larger, emerging effort to produce mechanical devices for sensitive force detection and high-frequency signal processing. According to Roukes, the technology could also have implications for new and improved biological imaging and, ultimately, for observing individual molecules through an improved approach to magnetic resonance spectroscopy, as well as for a new form of mass spectrometry that may permit single molecules to be "fingerprinted" by their mass.
"When we think of microelectronics today, we think about moving charges around on chips," says Roukes. "We can do this at high rates of speed, but in this electronic age our mind-set has been somewhat tyrannized in that we typically think of electronic devices as involving only the movement of charge.
"But since 1992, we've been trying to push mechanical devices to ever-smaller dimensions, because as you make things smaller, there's less inertia in getting them to move. So the time scales for inducing mechanical response go way down."
Though a good home computer these days can have a speed of one gigahertz or more, the quest to construct a mechanical device that can operate at such speeds has required multiple breakthroughs in manufacturing technology. In the case of the Roukes group's new demonstration, the use of silicon carbide epilayers to control layer thickness to atomic dimensions and a balanced high-frequency technique for sensing motion that effectively transfers signals to macroscale circuitry have been crucial to success. Both advances were pioneered in the Roukes lab.
Grown on silicon wafers, the films used in the work are prepared in such a way that the end-products are two nearly-identical beams 1.1 microns long, 120 nanometers wide and 75 nanometers thick. When driven by a microwave-frequency electric current while exposed to a strong magnetic field, the beams mechanically vibrate at slightly more than one gigahertz.
Future work will include improving the nanodevices to better link their mechanical function to real-world applications, Roukes says. The issue of communicating information, or measurements, from the nanoworld to the everyday world we live in is by no means a trivial matter. As devices become smaller, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize the very small displacements that occur at much shorter time-scales.
Progress with the nanoelectromechanical system working at microwave frequencies offer the potential for improving magnetic resonance imaging to the extent that individual macromolecules could be imaged. This would be especially important in furthering the understanding of the relationship between, for example, the structure and function of proteins. Also, the devices could be used in a novel form of mass spectrometry, and for sensing individual biomolecules in fluids, and perhaps for realizing solid-state manifestations of the quantum bit that could be exploited for future devices such as quantum computers.
The coauthors of the paper are Xue-Ming (Henry) Huang, a graduate student in physics at Caltech; and Chris Zorman and Mehran Mehrengany, both engineering professors at Case Western Reserve University.
Contact:Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631