Scientists at the University of Vienna claim to have perfected a single-atom manipulation technique that, they say, could be used to develop nano-scale devices.
This means they have nearly perfect control over the movement of individual silicon impurity atoms within the lattice of graphene.
This is seen as a breakthrough because atoms are too small to see without powerful modern instruments, such as electron microscopes.
Using a scanning tunneling microscope, scientists have been able to move atoms over surfaces since the late 1980s. This has until very recently been the only technology capable of moving individual atoms in such a controlled manner.
Using the scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM), though, researchers have been able to reliably focus an electron beam with sub-atomic precision, enabling scientists to directly see each atom in two-dimensional materials, like graphene.
This is also able to target single atoms with the beam, which is important because each electron has a tiny chance of 'scattering back' from a nucleus, giving it a kick in the opposite direction.
However, building on work published in recent years, the research team at the University of Vienna - led by Toma Susi - say they have successfully used an advanced electron microscope, called Nion UltraSTEM100, to move single silicon atoms in graphene with truly atomic precision.
Even with manual operation, the achieved movement rate is already comparable to the state-of-the-art in any atomically precise technique, the researchers said.
"The control we are able to achieve by essentially directing the electron beam by hand is already remarkable, but we have further taken the first steps towards automation by detecting the jumps in real time," explained Susi.
The new results also improve theoretical models of the process by including simulations by collaborators in Belgium and Norway.
In total, the researchers recorded nearly 300 controlled jumps. IT means that a silicon impurity could be moved back and forth between two neighboring lattice sites separated by one tenth-billionth of a meter, like flipping an atomic-sized switch.
This could be used to store one bit of information at record-high density.
"Your computer or cellphone will not have atomic memories anytime soon, but graphene impurity atoms do seem to have potential as bits near the limits of what is physically possible," Susi added.
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