With this device, Ternes said they've discovered that it takes 210 piconewtons to move a cobalt atom over a platinum surface, but it takes 17 piconewtons to move a cobalt atom over a copper surface. Named after Sir Isaac Newton, a piconewton is about the force needed to hold a glass of wine in your hand, according to Ternes. To move that one cobalt atom, it would take about a millionth of a millionth of the force needed to hold that glass of wine.
Heinrich said that now that they can make these kinds of measurements, they plan on moving forward with their work to store data on just a few atoms.
"We have been able to shrink the silicon on our chips down. That's been the great facilitator to get faster computers and more data storage, but we all know that's not going to go on forever," Heinrich added. "There will be a break at some point. What we do in our lab is take the opposite approach and start with the smallest thing -- single atoms -- and build data storage devices one atom at a time. This particular work will allow us to know what we can build and why we can build those things."
Their new measurement capabilities also will allow researchers to shrink the size of transistors that are used in computer chips. Shrinking transistors cuts power requirements, boosts speed and requires less power. Some researchers consider the transistor to be the single most important invention of the 20th century.
And analysts expect the transistor to continue to drive digital products forward into the future. Intel's latest 45nm Penryn processor holds 820 million transistors. Risto Puhakka, president of VLSI Research, said he expects that within 10 to 15 years, semiconductor companies will be squeezing 10 billion to 15 billion onto a single chip.