IBM Research - Almaden, San Jose, CA, USA
It should surprise no one that a man who restores cars in his spare time would be adept at taking apart and building other mechanisms too. But handy doesn't even begin to describe Don Eigler, a physicist and confessed instrumentation jockey who designed and built one of the world's most extraordinary laboratory instruments, a microscope capable not only of imaging atoms, but of building new structures using individual atoms as the building blocks.
Why would a computer company care about atoms? For one thing, the future of information technology depends on being able to build ever smaller electronic devices on semiconductor chips. Being able to build structures at the atomic level gives IBM researchers an opportunity to explore the potential of really small electronic devices.
The microscope that Eigler built is a specialized Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) which allows samples to be prepared and studied in ultra high vacuum and at liquid helium temperature, just four degrees above absolute zero. The Scanning Tunneling Microscope, a Nobel Prize-winning invention of two IBM scientists in the IBM Research Division's Zurich laboratory, is an instrument which can create atomic resolution images of surfaces by tracing out the shape of a surface with a needle. By cooling the samples down to very low temperatures at which atoms tend to hold still, Eigler was capable of demonstrating that the needle of the microscope could also be used as a tool to position individual on a surface.
In 1989, Eigler used his STM to spell out the letters "I-B-M", demonstrating the ability to position individual atoms with atomic-scale precision. Since then, his group has demonstrated the ability to construct custom molecules and even to operate an electrical switch whose only moving part is a single atom. Eigler and his collaborators have learned to create a new kind of electron trap called a "quantum corral" which allows them to visualize and study the quantum mechanical properties of electrons which are confined to dimensions which are as small as possible future electronic devices.
Eigler received both his bachelor's and doctorate degrees from the University of California San Diego and was named its Outstanding Alumnus of the year in 1999. He has been recognized for his accomplishments with the Davisson-Germer Prize awarded by the American Physical Society, the Dannie Heineman Prize awarded by the Göttingen Academy of Sciences, the Newcomb-Cleveland Prize awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Grand Award for Science and Technology awarded by Popular Science Magazine, and numerous honorary lectureships including the Gordon Research Conference's Alexander M. Cruikshank Lectureship in Physical Sciences, the Bethe Lectureship at Cornell University, the Loeb Lectureship at Harvard University, the Bragg Lectureship at University College London and a Regents Lectureship at the University of California Los Angeles. In 2002 he received an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Delft. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2004 he was elected a member of the Max Planck Society, Germany's most prestigious scientific organization. In 2007 he was appointed a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He was named an IBM Fellow in 1993, the highest technical honor in the IBM Corporation. In 2010, Eigler was awarded the most prestigious honor in nanoscience, The Kavli Prize, sharing the honor with Nadrian Seeman, a professor at New York University.
Eigler currently serves on the advisory boards of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) Nanoelectronics Program, the Oak Ridge National Laboratories Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS), New Zealand's MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, the University of California Microelectronics Innovation and Computer Research Opportunities (MICRO) program, the Harvard University Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC), and the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Nanoscale Science program.