Atom Pinhole Camera Acts as a Shrinking Copy Machine

June 1, 2009 By Lisa Zyga, feature

In an atom pinhole camera, atoms pass through pinholes in a mask and generate a scaled-down nanostructure of the mask’s pattern onto a substrate. Image credit: P.N. Melentiev, et al.
( -- In 1983, Richard Feynman proposed the idea of a machine that could create smaller scale replicas of itself. Today, such a system is still a challenge, but a machine that can produce nanometer-sized copies of micrometer-sized objects could prove to be extremely useful in modern nanotechnologies.

In pursuit of this goal, scientists from the Institute of Spectroscopy, Russian Academy of Sciences have developed a method of using an atom pinhole camera. For the first time, the researchers, along with coauthors from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, have experimentally demonstrated how to use the camera to manufacture an array of identical atomic nanostructures of controlled shapes and sizes. The technique could produce individual nanostructures down to 30 nm, a size reduction of 10,000 times compared with the original object.

“Our present experimental results show the resolution about 30 nm, but our calculations (the theoretical prediction) tell us that the resolution can be down to about 6 nm,” Victor Balykin of the Russian Academy of Sciences told

As the scientists explain, the atom pinhole camera they designed is based on the idea of an optical pinhole camera, which is often used in optics when creation of a focusing lens is difficult. Instead of light traveling through a lens, light travels through a pinhole on a mask, and creates an inverted image on a substrate on the other side. Optical pinhole cameras can produce high-quality images with high resolution that depends on the diameter of the pinhole.

In an atom pinhole camera, atoms act like photons in an optical pinhole camera, and so the main principles are the same in both versions. In their experimental setup, the scientists used ion beam milling to poke a pinhole in a mask. After the atoms passed through the pinhole, they created an atomic nanostructure on a . As the atom pinhole camera provides a way to replicate micro-sized objects as nano-sized ones, the camera is an example of Feynman’s scalable manufacturing system.

The scientists also created another mask with a large array of pinholes. In this “atom multiple pinhole camera,” each pinhole could generate its own image, which does not intersect with neighboring images. As the scientists noted, a camera with up to 10 million pinholes could open up opportunities for simultaneous generation of large numbers of identical (or diverse) nanostructures.

Using an atom pinhole camera to fabricate nanostructures offers several advantages compared to other nanofabrication techniques, which include optical photolithography (in which a photosensitive material is molded by light), nanolithography (in which focused particle beams mold objects), and atom optics methods that use lenses, which are limited by diffraction.

“Presently there are many different methods to build the nanostructures on a surface but usually they are very complicated, limited in choice of materials, and costly,” Balykin said. “Our machine can be built in any lab (with reasonable efforts and by a PhD student) and it will produce a necessary .”

The atom pinhole camera is a novel type of lens-less atom optics technique, which uses diffraction to its advantage. While it might seem that resolution in atom pinhole camera would be limited to the diameter of the pinhole, the researchers show in an upcoming study that the image spot diameter can be three times smaller than the pinhole diameter, which is due to diffraction effects.

The new method can be used with a variety of materials for nanostructures (e.g. atoms, molecules, and clusters) and a variety of substrates, which could make it useful for diverse applications such as electronics and biological uses. The scientists predict that the method could have applications in metamaterials, plasmonics, spintronics, MEMS/NEMS, and more.

More information: P.N. Melentiev, A.V. Aablotskiy, D.A. Lapshin, E.P. Sheshin, A.S. Baturin, and V.I. Balykin. “Nanolithography based on an atom pinhole camera.” Nanotechnology 20 (2009) 235301 (7pp).

Copyright 2009
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4.8 / 5 (4) Jun 01, 2009
Richard Feynman is often credited with the proposal to use micromanipulators to build still smaller micromanipulators, approaching the limits to miniaturization.
But this idea was proposed earlier by science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in the story, "Waldo," first published in 1942.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 02, 2009
I do not know exactly when Heinlein published his story. Feynman made the lecture about nanotechnology "There is plenty of room at the bottom" sometime 1957-59. Independently of Feynman and Heinlein (because of censorship behind the Iron Curtain) Stanislaw Lem presented the possibilities of micro-and nanotechnology is his non-fiction "Summa Technologiae" (Krakow, 1965). I recall, because he also presented the idea of what we today call "virtual reality" in the same book. There may also be other conceptual pioneers in the field of nanotechnology, but I do not recall them.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 02, 2009
Nice work, but the resolution is dependent on the substrate temperature as well as landing energy, which affects the diffusion of the atoms when they land on the surface.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2009
Substrate temp is easily controllable... and they can use a REALLY freakin' BRIGHT light...
5 / 5 (1) Jun 04, 2009
A group I knew at Cornell tried this extensively, but the holes in the stencil kept getting clogged by the atoms going through which deposited.
Jun 04, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Jun 04, 2009
I am not sure if charging helps with neutral atoms or would cause charged particles from avoiding the holes altogether.

But in any case keep in mind things will be happening one monolayer at at time. I think semiconductor companies today are too impatient to wait this long for so many monolayers. But more open-minded types would definitely welcome this type of technology.
not rated yet Jun 06, 2009
Another thought came to me. Wonder if van der Waals forces between atoms should be important? I mean in any case the force binding them to the surface or previously deposited atoms could also act while they are in the beam.

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