Nanotech Tools For Tomorrow's Teeny Robots

A DECADE AFTER BIG BLUE'S 1981 invention of the scanning tunneling microscope, or STM, IBM researchers demonstrated that an STM's pointy tip can do more than just trace the contours of individual atoms. The microscope can also pick up and move separate atoms. And now, scientists at Cornell University have made an ultrasmall STM that could be the forerunner of minuscule machine tools for the nanotechnology era.

Nanotech visionaries predict that tiny robots and computer circuits will one day be built atom by atom. Such molecular-scale robots could probe and repair DNA or hunt down cancer cells in the bloodstream. But today's STMs aren't practical production tools because the business end of the system, including the little motors that drive the tip, is about the size of your thumb.

To make drastically smaller STMs--smaller than pinheads--Cornell's Noel C. MacDonald, a professor of electrical engineering, has harnessed the technology used in manufacturing semiconductors and built transistor-size silicon motors. So future silicon chips could be packed with batteries of STMs, turning chips into nanotech factories. Cornell is already working with TMS Technologies Inc. in Ithaca, N.Y., to license the technology.