March 23, 2007

Plasmonic potential

light beam striking a metal surface can generate plasmons, electron density waves that can carry huge amounts of data. If focused on a surface etched with a circular groove, as in this artist's rendering, the beam produces concentric waves, organizing the electrons into high- and low-density rings.

Over the past decade investigators have found that by creatively designing the metal-dielectric interface they can generate surface plasmons with the same frequency as the outside electromagnetic waves but with a much shorter wavelength. This phenomenon could allow the plasmons to travel along nanoscale wires called interconnects, carrying information from one part of a microprocessor to another. Plasmonic interconnects would be a great boon for chip designers, who have been able to develop ever smaller and faster transistors but have had a harder time building minute electronic circuits that can move data quickly across the chip.

The field of plasmonics received another boost with the discovery of novel "metamaterials"--materials in which electron oscillations can result in astounding optical properties.

Hideki Miyazaki of the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan obtained a striking result by squeezing red light (with a wavelength of 651 nanometers in free space) into a plasmon slot waveguide that was only three nanometers thick and 55 nanometers wide. The researchers found that the wavelength of the surface plasmon propagating through the device was 51 nanometers, or about 8 percent of the free-space wavelength. Plasmon slot waveguides are capable of trans­mit­ting a signal as far as tens of microns.

Plasmonics can thus generate signals in the soft x-ray range of wavelengths (between 10 and 100 nanometers) by exciting materials with visible light. The wavelength can be reduced by more than a factor of 10 relative to its free-space value, and yet the frequency of the signal remains the same.

Just as lithography is now used to imprint circuit patterns on silicon chips, a similar process could mass-produce minuscule plasmonic devices with arrays of narrow dielectric stripes and gaps. These arrays would guide the waves of positive and negative charge on the metal surface; the alternating charge densities would be very much akin to the alternating current traveling along an ordinary wire. But because the frequency of an optical signal is so much higher than that of an electrical one--more than 400,000 gigahertz versus 60 hertz--the plasmonic circuit would be able to carry much more data. Moreover, because electrical charge does not travel from one end of a plasmonic circuit to another--the electrons bunch together and spread apart rather than streaming in a single direct­ion--the device is not subject to resistance and capacitance effects that limit the data-carrying capacity of integrated circuits with electrical interconnects.

Plasmonic circuits would be even faster and more useful if researchers could devise a "plasmonster" switch--a three-terminal plasmonic device with transistorlike properties. The Caltech lab and other research groups have recently developed low-power versions of such a switch. If scientists can produce plasmonsters with better performance, the devices could serve as the core of an ultrafast signal-processing system, an advance that could revolutionize computing 10 to 20 years from now.

Human and animal tissues are transparent to radiation at certain infrared wavelengths. Non-toxic plasmonic nanoshells have been injected into the bloodstream of mice and killed all traces of cancer within 10 days.

Plasmonic materials may also revolutionize the lighting industry by making LEDs bright enough to compete with incandescent bulbs. Coating the surface of a gallium nitride LED with dense arrays of plasmonic nanoparticles (made of silver, gold or aluminum) could increase the intensity of the emitted light 14-fold. Plasmonic nano­part­icles may enable researchers to develop LEDs made of silicon. Such devices, which would be much cheaper than conventional LEDs composed of gallium nitride or gallium arsenide, are currently held back by their low rates of light emission.

Calculations indicate that careful tuning of the plasmonic resonance fre­quency and precise control of the sep­ar­ation between the metallic particles and the semiconductor materials may enable increasing radiative rates more than 100-fold, allowing silicon LEDs to shine just as brightly as tra­di­tional devices.

MEMS tech breakthrough: inkjet 10 times faster, 20 times cheaper

Another indicator of accelerating progress.

The Memjet technology uses a series of individual MEMS-based inkjet nozzles, fabricated using conventional semiconductor manufacturing techniques. Each chip measures 20 millimeters across and contains 6,400 nozzles, with five color channels, the company said. A separate driver chip calculates 900 million picoliter-sized drops per second. For a standard A4 letter printer, the result is a total of 70,400 nozzles.

The maximum resolution achievable is 1600x1600, according to Silverbrook. Photo-quality printing on the 8x10 printer can be achieved at 30 pages per minute; standard office-quality color prints are printed at 60 pages per minute, and draft mode prints 90 pages per minute.

The ink that the Memjet printers are currently using is dye-based, similar to that used by the rest of the industry. Silverbrook executives believe that they can design a printer that holds five times as much ink – 50 ml – as a conventional print cartridge, and sell for about $20 or less. How the company will solve clogging problems – the bane of inkjet printers – hasn't been fully disclosed, LeCompte said.

"I've seen it with my own eyes," said Charlie LeCompte, president of Lyra Research, which tracks the printer market. "They've been showing several models since January. I've seen the photo printer running; I haven't seen the letter printer running, but other people - at Lyra - have."

"I've been following this industry for 20 years, and I've never seen anything of this scale: 10 times faster, 20 times cheaper, all at once," LeCompte added.

March 22, 2007

more on Superlens and Hyperlens

This latest development from Henri Lezec and co-workers at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, US, could lead to a 'superlens' capable of producing optical images with detail to rival electron microscopes.

The bolt on microscope resolution booster could be out to the top 1000 labs within 2 years. The target of 1 nanometer resolution for optical microscopes within 5 years looks doable.

Perhaps a Moore's law of optical microscope resolution
2 years 70 nanometers common
3 years 20 nanometers common
4 years 8 nanometers common
5 years 4 nanometers common
6 years 2 nanometers common
7 years 1 nanometers common

Could the metamaterials allow for some advanced form of lithography ?

UPDATE: A Technology Review article answer yes. These lens could ultimately be used to project an image with extremely fine features onto a photoresist as a first step in photolithography, a process used to make computer chips.

MIT Technology Indicates Igor Smolyaninov,University of Maryland, estimates that their method could resolve features as small as 10 nanometers.

Metamaterials are being used to extend photolithography using less extreme and more inexpensive optical sources. They call it Evanescent wave lithography. Evanescent wave lithography is different from Evanescent wave imaging. They are using projection imaging to direct images from the bottom element of the optical system through media with refractive indices lower than the numerical aperture of the imaging system,” he said. “We have been able to achieve numerical apertures up to 1.85 NA (Feb, 2006), well beyond the refractive index of any immersion fluid or photoresist currently available for 193-nm exposure. Immersion lithography is limited by Snell's Law to numerical apertures (NA) less than the lowest refractive index material in a lithography imaging system. Currently, with fused silica optics, high-index immersion fluids, and ArF photoresists, the largest theorectical numerical aperture is about 1.65. Recently lutetium aluminum garnet (LuAG), a crystalline mineral seen by SEMATECH as the leading candidate for extending immersion lithography. LuAG has a refractive index of 2.14.

Lithography roadmap discussed in this pdf and in this article. Current research in nanolithography is reviewed by Georgia tech

Proton beams were used to demonstrate 12.5 nanometer lithography

These capabilities combined with possible large scale quantum computers show the rapidly developing tools for far more advanced work leading to molecular nanotechnology. It is becoming far more comfortable and fast for work to be done at molecular scales.

Negative refraction of green light: Light entering through a slit in the silver produces plasmons which are guided along the metal-insulator surface until they reach a gold prism embedded in the silicon nitride. Light emanates from the device at a tell-tale angle.

Lezec and co-workers have used electromagnetic waves called surface plasmons, which are generated when photons hit electrons in a metal. A layer of insulating silicon nitride is sandwiched between two sheets of silver. Light entering through a slit in the silver produces plasmons which are guided along the metal-insulator surface until they reach a gold prism embedded in the silicon nitride. As the plasmon wave passes through the 50 nanometre-wide channel between the prism and the silver sheet it is heavily perturbed, and is negatively refracted on passing back into the silcon nitride. Blue-green light emanated from the device at a tell-tale angle.

Smolyaninov's group used a series of concentric polymer rings on a gold surface to amplify an image generated by surface plasmons.

Schematic of an optical hyperlens that can magnify and project sub-diffraction-limited objects onto a far-field plane. The objects and the hyperlens are enlarged to show details; they are actually much smaller than a conventional lens. Images courtesy the Zhang Lab, UC Berkeley. The new hyperlens, described in the Feb. 23 issue of the journal Science, is capable of projecting a magnified image of a pair of nanowires spaced 150 nanometers apart onto a plane up to a meter away.

Meanwhile Xiang Zhang and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley captured the near-field waves and propagated them through a bulk metamaterial. Zhang used concentric cylinders to provide the optical trickery, and the incident light was just outside the visible, in the near UV. Both lenses gave resolutions of a few tens of nanometres.

Bolt on superlens could boost optical microscopes 4 times

Mass produceable bolt-on superlens is nearly ready which could boost all optical microscopes to 70 nanometer resolution or four times better than normal

Concentric rings of plastic on gold allow an optical microscope to resolve objects too small to otherwise be seen (Image: Science/Maryland University)

The team are now altering the shape of the rings to improve the quality of images. "By stacking multiple copies of the flat devices it should be possible to use it in 3D," says Smolyaninov.

The team hope in particular to make a version that could offer an instant upgrade to biologists. "We are interested in developing a slide for a normal microscope that will allow samples like viruses or DNA to be imaged below the diffraction limit," says Davis.

the Maryland researchers claim their device should easier to mass produce since it is made using electron beam lithography, a process already widely used in the electronics industry.

This article discusses a project to make 1 nanometer resolution microscope and has links to prior articles for other high resolution projects

EU triples nanotech funding

Funding for nanotechnology related projects is expected to reach €3.5 billion (approx $4.5 billion) for the 2007 to 2013 period This is up from €1.3 billion (approx $1.7 billion) between 2002 to 2006. It is for NNI style nanotech. Things like self-assembly, nanostructured materials, nanoelectronics etc...

March 21, 2007

Mechanical force used to control chemistry

This provides more clear evidence that the concept of site specific chemistry using mechanical placement of molecules is viable. This concept is the basis of molecular nanotechnology. This may become part of a bootstrapping pathway. This shows that those who said that we would not be able to mechnically control chemical reactions were wrong.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found a novel way to manipulate matter and drive chemical reactions along a desired direction. The new technique utilizes mechanical force to alter the course of chemical reactions and yield products not obtainable through conventional conditions.

"This is a fundamentally new way of doing chemistry," said Jeffrey Moore, a William H. and Janet Lycan Professor of Chemistry at Illinois and corresponding author of a paper that describes the technique in the March 22 issue of the journal Nature.

"By harnessing mechanical energy, we can go into molecules and pull on specific bonds to drive desired reactions," said Moore, who also is a researcher at the Frederick Seitz Materials Laboratory on campus and at the university's Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. The directionally specific nature of mechanical force makes this approach to reaction control fundamentally different from the usual chemical and physical constraints. To demonstrate the technique, Moore and colleagues placed a mechanically active molecule – called a mechanophore – at the center of a long polymer chain. The polymer chain was then stretched in opposite directions by a flow field created by the collapse of cavitating bubbles produced by ultrasound, subjecting the mechanophore to a mechanical tug of war.

"We created a situation where a chemical reaction could go down one of two pathways," Moore said. "By applying force to the mechanophore, we could bias which of those pathways the reaction chose to follow."

Richard Smalley had said, "I agree you will get a reaction when a robot arm pushes the molecules together, but most of the time it won't be the reaction you want." This shows that mechanical force can be used to get the reaction you want.

High field magnets exponentially better at imaging

Nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, generates a true-to-life fingerprint - a unique pattern indicating the presence of specific molecules - for a research sample that is being analyzed. It has been found that a higher power magnet (21.1 tesla) increases the picture's brightness by a factor of about 10 relative to low-field images (14.1 tesla) Up to 18 times less sample is needed and experiments can take minutes instead of hours. Theorists had predicted a linear increase in both resolution and sensitivity at higher magnetic fields. The FSU team members observed an exponential increase - with the sensitivity increasing by a factor of three over what had been predicted.

Microbial fuel cells generate power from waste water

Generating electricity from renewable sources will soon become as easy as putting a brush and a tube in a tub of wastewater. A carbon fiber, bottle-brush anode developed by Penn State researchers will provide more than enough surface for bacteria to colonize, for the first time making it possible to use microbial fuel cells for large scale electricity production. In addition, a membrane-tube air cathode, adapted from existing wastewater treatment equipment, will complete the circuit.

Microbial fuel cells work through the action of bacteria, which can pass electrons to an anode of a fuel cell. The electrons flow from the anode through a wire to the cathode, producing an electric current. In the process, the bacteria consume organic matter in the wastewater and clean the water. The Penn State approach uses the bacteria that naturally occur in wastewater, requiring no special bacterial strains or unusual environmental demands.

In the best test case, the researchers used a carbon fiber brush anode and two tubular cathodes of about .6 inches in diameter doped with a cobalt catalyst on the inside, the fuel cell produced 18 watts per 260 gallons of water and achieved a charge efficiency of more than 70 percent. An additional benefit to the microbial fuel cell is that while it generates electricity, it cleans up the wastewater, something that usually requires the consumption of energy.

Lesser developed countries discharge approximately (the equivalent of) 100 trillion gallons (380×109 m³) of untreated sewage per annum This could potentially generate 7 Terawatts of power for them and clean up their waste water.

March 20, 2007

photonic crystal can increase the efficiency of solar cells by up to 37 percent

In conventional solar cells (a), light (dashed line) enters an antireflective layer (yellow) and then a layer of silicon (green) in which much of the light is converted into electricity. But some of the light (solid arrows) reflects off an aluminum backing, returns through the silicon, and exits without generating electricity. A new material (represented by the dots in [b]) makes it possible to convert more of this light into electricity. Instead of reflecting back out of the solar cell, the light is diffracted by one layer of the material (larger dots). This causes the light to reenter the silicon at a low angle, at which point it bounces around until it is absorbed. The light that makes it through the first layer is reflected by the second layer of material (smaller dots) before being diffracted into the silicon.
Credit: Peter Bermel

StarSolar, a startup based in Cambridge, MA, aims to capture and use photons that ordinarily pass through solar cells without generating electricity. StarSolar's approach addresses a long-standing challenge in photovoltaics. Silicon, the active material that is used in most solar cells today, has to do double duty. It both absorbs incoming light and converts it into electricity. Solar cells could be cheaper if they used less silicon. But if the silicon is made thinner than it is now, it may still retain its ability to convert the photons it absorbs into electricity.

Researchers found that by creating a specific pattern of microscopic spheres of glass within a precisely designed photonic crystal, and then applying this pattern in a thin layer at the back of a solar cell, they could redirect unabsorbed photons back into the silicon.

Photonic crystal can increase the efficiency of solar cells by up to 37 percent, says Peter Bermel, CTO and a cofounder of StarSolar. This makes it possible to use many times less silicon, he says, cutting costs enough to compete with electricity from the grid in many markets.

Shawn-Yu Lin, professor of physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has developed a method for manufacturing eight-inch disks of photonic crystal--a measurement considerably larger than what can be done with conventional techniques.

Another potentially less-expensive method, called interference lithography, creates orderly patterns in the photonic-crystal materials. The method is fast and uses machines that are far less expensive than those used for conventional optical lithography. It also requires fewer steps than Lin's existing process, so he says it could be far cheaper. Such methods have been developed by Henry Smith, professor of electrical engineering at MIT, who was not involved with the StarSolar-related work. Smith says his interference-lithography method could be used to build templates for imprinting photonic-crystal patterns on large areas.

Another promising technique is self-assembly, in which the chemical and physical properties of material building blocks are engineered so that they arrange themselves in orderly patterns on a surface.

StarSolar hopes to have a prototype solar cell within a year and a pilot manufacturing line operating in 2008.

Nuclear power costs

Nuclear energy costs dependent upon assumptions

The cost of generating power via nuclear energy can be separated into the following components:

* The construction cost of building the plant.
* The operating cost of running the plant and generating energy.
* The cost of waste disposal from the plant.
* The cost of decommissioning the plant

Quantifying some of these costs is difficult as it requires an extrapolation into the future. Construction costs are currently difficult to quantify but dominate the cost of Nuclear Power. The problem is that third generation power plants currently proposed are claimed to be both substantially cheaper and faster to construct than the second generation power plants now in operation throughout the world.

For example Westinghouse claims its Advanced PWR reactor, the AP1000, will cost USD $1500-$1800 per KW for the first reactor and may fall to USD $1200 per KW for subsequent reactors. They also claim these will be ready for electricity production 3 years after first pouring concrete.

If we assume a 7% interest rate and 4 year construction period, US operating costs in the second best quartile, the cost of electricity production for plants that cost $1.2 Billion, $1.5 Billion and$ 2.0 Billion US dollars would be 3.3, 3.8 and 4.4 US cents per KW-Hr respectively. If the AP1000 lives up to its promises of $1200 per KW construction cost and 3 year construction time, it will provide electricity fully cost competitive with Fossil Fuel based generating facilities.

Atomic insights also has some cost estimates

2003 MIT study estimated 6.75cents /kw hour
Capital cost of the plant - $2000 per kilowatt capacity
Construction duration - 5 years
Capacity factor - 85%
Plant lifetime - 40 years
Required return on equity - 15%
Interest rate - 8%
debt to equity ratio - 50/50

Reduce construction cost 25% - 5.5 cents /kwh
Reduce construction time 5 to 4 years - 5.3 /kwh
Further reduce O&M to 13 mills/kWe-hr - 5.1 /kwh
Reduce cost of capital to gas/coal - 4.2 /kwh

Actual current experience in the USA is capacity factor 90%, increasing plant life to 60 years, and shifting the debt to equity ratio to 80/20.
The state as investor instead of private capital there, would translate more or less like that:
Required return on equity - 5%
Interest rate - 5%
debt to equity ratio - 95/5

Exponential production and nanofactories

Exponential manufacturing is one of the key features that magnifies the impact of molecular nanotechnology Exponential manufacturing is a nanofactory being able to produce another nanofactory. Nanofactories with this capability can double their number in the time it takes to make another copy.

When would exponential manufacturing dominate over projected conventional production ?

A nanofactory could produce the equivalent of a wafer full of chips which is equivalent to the output of a multi-billion semiconductor fabrication factory. How many nanofactories would be needed to equal the roughly 50,000 wafers produced each month by a modern fab?
About 100 wafers per hour from the fab. So 100 personal nanofactories based on some rough estimates of projected performance. If it took 1 day to make another nanofactory then it would take 8 days to have nanofactories that equalled the production of the fab. If the production performance of the nanofactories were 10 times less, then it would take 1000 PN to equal the production rate and it would take 110 days to make the 1000 nanofactories at the 10 day per doubling rate.
If doubling performance of the nanofactory stayed higher than 100 days per doubling then the impact would not be as shocking and their would be time to adapt.

The molecularly precise nanofactory would produce higher quality and performance products.

RFID production forecast

It is projected that in 2012-2015 a trillion RFID tags will be made each year.

In 2010, 33 billion RFID tags/year up from 1.3 billion in 2005.

In February 2007, Hitachi announced new RFID tags are that 0.05 x 0.05 mm, which will be available in 2-3 years. The smallest RFID tags currently available are 0.4 x 0.4 mm mu-chips. The new RFIDs have 128-bit ROM for storing a unique 38-digit ID number.
One catch is that the new chip needs an external antenna, unlike the Mu-chip. The smallest antennas are about 4 millimeters -- giants next to the powder-size chip.
But say in 5 years, they could figure out how to make micro sized antennas that are integrated with the new chips, then production could go as follow :

From 4 million ICs from a wafer in 2007 up to 2 billion RFID ICs per wafer in 2015

450 mm wafer plants to start in 2008
Hitachi has plans for 12 micron on a side RFIDs.
Fabs can produce 30000-55000 wafers per month
Intel has 7 fabs.

A couple of fabs producing RFIDs would be 2400 trillion RFIDs/year.

Nasa Institute of Advanced Concepts may be shutdown by August, 2007

NASA will likely shut down its Institute for Advanced Concepts, which funds research into futuristic ideas in spaceflight and aeronautics in August 2007 unless there is budgetary change. I hope they do not shutdown the NIAC because it is doing fantastic work.

China makes the world's largest investment fund

China has jumped ahead with three sweeping reforms to solidify its growth, bolster its financial markets, and more rapidly transform itself into a 21st century market economy. China has just created what could soon be the largest investment fund in history. Economists expect the Chinese government to allocate $200 billion to $400 billion to the new fund. China’s Finance Minister said Beijing is following the lead of Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, which has poured billions into Singapore Airlines and Singapore Telecom ... has invested heavily in banks, shipping and real estate ... and has pumped billions more into Asian economic giants like China, India and South Korea. Temasek Holdings is a $90 billion fund that has averaged 18% returns for 32 years.

Currently Temasek is 75% invested in Singapore but indicates that it will change to 33%. Another one-third will be in developed markets and the final third is planned for investment in developing economies. China could follow this approach and also use the fund to wield political influence in developed and developing economies.

Chinese National Legislature passes new property law which provides legal protection for personal wealth. This will bring a surge in the power of the merchant middle class, entrepreneurs and even farmers.

China will now allow trading in stock index futures and options.

If China invests in its own companies then this is like a nationwide
share buyback. They can also buy significant positions in strategic industries and invest in technologies for the future

Regenerative Medicine Advance: Frog Tadpole Artificially Induced To Re-grow Its Tail

Scientists at Forsyth may have moved one step closer to regenerating human spinal cord tissue by artificially inducing a frog tadpole to re-grow its tail at a stage in its development when it is normally impossible. Past articles on regenerative medicine on advancednano

Using a variety of methods including a kind of gene therapy, the scientists altered the electrical properties of cells thus inducing regeneration. This discovery may provide clues about how bioelectricity can be used to help humans regenerate.

This study, for the first time, gave scientists a direct glimpse of the source of natural electric fields that are crucial for regeneration, as well as revealing how these are produced. In addition, the findings provide the first detailed mechanistic synthesis of bioelectrical, molecular-genetic, and cell-biological events underlying the regeneration of a complex vertebrate structure that includes skin, muscle, vasculature and critically spinal cord.

During the Forsyth study, the activity of a yeast proton pump (which produces H+ ion flow and thus sets up regions of higher and lower pH) triggered the regeneration of the frog's tail during the normally quiescent time.

Applied electric fields have long been known to enhance regeneration in amphibia, and in fact have led to clinical trials in human patients. However, the molecular sources of relevant currents and the mechanisms underlying their control have remained poorly understood. To truly make strides in regenerative medicine, we need to understand the innate components that underlie bioelectrical events during normal development and regeneration. The ability to stop regeneration by blocking a particular H+ pump and to induce regeneration when it is normally absent, means they have found at least one critical component.

March 19, 2007

Self-assembling macromolecules created

Institute Director S. Richard Turner and doctoral candidate Min Mao reported the synthesis of a new family of charged, rod-like block copolymers. The tiny rods can be either positive or negative, or can have alternating positive and negative charges along the backbone.

The rods self-assemble and the aggregated structures are remarkable stable in saline solution, Turner said. The stable self-assembled structures could have potential applications in drug delivery and gene delivery systems.

Medical robot breakthrough: Software controlled movement in living animal

The power of pre-molecular nanotechnology systems is shown in this work.

Polytechnique team has succeeded in injecting, propelling and
controlling by means of software programs an initial prototype of an
untethered device (a ferromagnetic 1.5- millimetre-diameter sphere)
within the carotid artery of a living animal placed inside a clinical
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system.
They have succeeded for
the first time in guiding, in vivo and via computer control, a
microdevice inside an artery, at a speed of 10 centimetres a second.

Encouraged by these results, staff at the Polytechnique
NanoRobotics Laboratory are currently working to further reduce the
size of the devices so that, within a few years, they can navigate
inside smaller blood vessels.

"Injection and control of nanorobots inside the human body, which
contains nearly 100,000 kilometres of blood vessels, is a promising
avenue that could enable interventional medicine to target sites that
so far have remained inaccessible using modern medical instruments
such as catheters," Professor Martel explained. "In collaboration with
our scientific partners, Polytechnique researchers have begun
developing several types of micro- and nanodevices for novel
applications, such as targeted delivery of medications to tumour sites
and diagnoses using navigable bio-sensors."

March 18, 2007

1-nanometer resolution is NSF CAREER researcher's goal for optical imaging

Success on this project would make it far cheaper and easier to see and work at near-molecular nanotech levels.

"The resolution of most optical microscopes is restricted by the so-called ‘diffraction limit,’ which means we cannot produce optical images with resolutions higher than a few hundred nanometers," Xu said. "Currently, the most advanced optical microscope can achieve a resolution only as low as 50 nanometers."

In the field of nanotechnology, researchers are discovering ways to arrange atoms into unique structures on the molecular scale. Xu is attempting to produce an optical microscope that can observe nanostructures at a resolution of one nanometer — which is equal in size to approximately one-billionth of a meter, or the diameter of four atoms.

In addition to achieving a breakthrough in arranging nanostructures, Xu hopes that his research will lead to observation of the "vacuum field" at a resolution of one nanometer.

"Vacuum field refers to the tiny amount of electric field fluctuations that can exist in the absence of any sources such as electrons or atoms," Xu explained. "Even though vacuum field cannot be directly measured, without it no light source can emit light. Observing the vacuum field at one nanometer resolution would help scientists solve one of the few remaining mysteries of quantum electrodynamics."

All of this, Xu believes, can ultimately lead to chip-scale quantum information processing and can help boost the pace of discovery in nanophotonics research and engineering.

Previous coverage on this site about creating superlenses with metamaterials to try to get to 17 nanometers with optical wavelengths and to 6 to 16 nanometers with soft x rays and 60 nanometers with a plasmon microscope

Near field optical microscopes can differentiate between objects less than 10 nanometers apart