New nanoscale thermometer will open up unseen world

4 Mar 2016

IBM scientists have finally cracked the code to creating an efficient means of measuring temperature at the smallest possible scale, promising big things for future computing and scientific research.

For decades now, researchers have been frustrated at being unable to accurately measure objects and entities at a scale that we can’t see, with measurements considered just too inaccurate to take into consideration.

But now, after six years of painstaking research, we have a thermometer for the nanoscale that can be put to a number of uses, including analysing the temperatures of viruses to better understand their developmental process, as well as helping us develop more advanced cognitive computing systems.

Future Human

Publishing a paper on its findings in Nature Communications, the team of Swiss researchers developed the powerful new thermometer based on the historic work of IBM predecessors Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986 for their scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), which opened the door to today’s breakthrough.

To create its new nanoscale thermometer, the team devised a method that uses a scanning probe to focus on an area for two signals measured simultaneously: a small heat flux, and its resistance to heat flow.

By combining these two signals, the temperature of nanoscopic objects can then be accurately determined.

“Essentially, the tip of the probe is our hand,” said co-inventor Dr Bernd Gotsmann. “Our perception to hot and cold can be very helpful to get an idea of an object;s temperature, but it can also be misleading if the resistance to heat flow is unknown.”

IBM nanoscale thermometer

IBM scientist Fabian Menges with the nano thermometer. Image via IBM Research

Explaining further, another member of the team, Dr Fabian Menges, said: “Not only is the scanning probe thermometer accurate, it meets the trifecta for tools: it’s easy to operate, simple to build, and very versatile.”

Once up and running, it can be used to measure the temperature of nano and micro-sized hot spots that can locally affect the physical properties of materials or govern chemical reactions in devices such as transistors, memory cells, thermoelectric energy converters or plasmonic structures.

“The applications are endless,” added Dr Menges.

Nanoscale mixture image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic