High school students 'write' with atoms while visiting Tufts University lab

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass.--Two decades after the first physicist moved individual atoms to create his company's logo -- IBM -- Boston high school students were able to do the same thing in a lab at Tufts University.

"They performed what we think is a world first for high school students," Assistant Professor Charles Sykes said. "The students used our low-temperature microscope to 'write' with individual molecules."
It was only in 1981 that scientists were able to "see" individual atoms and molecules for the first time with the development of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Unlike conventional microscopes, the STM uses electricity instead of light to make it possible to see things as small as individual atoms.
Eight years later, physicist Donald Eigler used a scanning tunneling microscope to move individual xenon atoms to spell out the IBM logo. Since then, scientists have used the technique and made advancements that will affect many nanoscale electronic devices, such as cell phones and iPods.
The Tufts researchers do not know of any other high school students performing experiments involving moving individual carbon monoxide molecules to write letters. Similar to Eigler, the students decided to make their school logo and wrote "SJA" for the Social Justice Academy, which is part of the Boston Public Schools.
"These molecules are less than one nanometer across and were positioned on a copper metal surface," Sykes explained. "These are among the smallest letters in the world, more than 10,000 letters would fit across the width of a human hair."
Wanting to expand their research beyond their basement lab on Tufts University's Medford/Somerville campus, Sykes and his graduate students decided to team up with Tufts graduate Roger Winn to allow his SJA chemistry students to find out what chemistry is like in college and graduate school.
Two doctoral students from Sykes' chemistry lab visited the Social Justice Academy in April with a portable scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to give the high schoolers a chance to see graphite atoms in their pencils at the nanoscale.
In the Tufts lab, the high school students were able to see the non-portable STM -- the one that takes up an entire room in the lab, costs over $500,000 and is one of only 100 in the world -- to look at molecules and see how they interact with surfaces.
The scanning tunneling microscope was developed in 1981 and five years later its inventors, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for its design.
About Tufts University
Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.


Back to Top