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Photos: Inside IBM's Zurich research lab

Investigating nanoscale objects is a hugely tricky process--even with a scanning electron microscope--and the research needs to be conducted in a special atmosphere. This particular work, conducted by Walter Riess, the research manager for nanoscale structures and devices, is looking at ways of growing nanowires.

A nanowire is an extremely narrow object that has an aspect ratio (the ratio between length and width) of 1,000-to-1 or greater. At this time, nanowires and their possible uses exist only in the realms of research, but Riess and his team are investigating different elements for their suitability for "growing" nanowires, and trying to deduce the properties those wires will have. The aim is to use nanowires to manufacture microprocessors.

A microprocessor built from nanowires would, in theory, be much more powerful than current processors since computers are based on electrical signals running through very narrow channels. Today's microprocessors are so small inside that signals leak and create interference, a problem that will only get bigger as the channels get smaller. Can nanowires conduct electrical signals in nanoscale structures? A lot of science needs to be done before we know the answer to that one.

Colin Barker/ZDNet UK

By Bill Detwiler

Bill Detwiler is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the ...