QNS Exploring the Nano World

100,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair
Tae-in Yoon (Reporter, Kids Science Donga)

What if one meter is reduced by one tenth nine times? One billionth of a meter is called 1 nm (nanometer). It's a small world, about 1/100,000 the thickness of a human hair. The Kids Science Donga’s junior reporters visited the IBS Center for Quantum Nanoscience at Ewha Womans University's Research Cooperation Building to ask, “How does QNS explore the world of nano?”

What does a place studying nano world look like?

“What do you think scientists do?” QNS’s outreach manager Sunny Kim and researcher Wonjun Jang asked as they greeted the reporters from Kids Science Donga. The junior reporters watched a vlog of a researcher's day together, and checked out what scientists do.

Joo-young Lim, a junior reporter, was surprised and said, "It was the first time I realized that scientists spend so much time in meetings for research; contrary to the expectation that scientists spend most of their time researching in the laboratory."

Scientists at QNS use a special microscope called a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to study how two nanometer-sized atoms affect each other and transmit information when they are near or far away. When an STM detects an atom or a molecule, it uses a sharp needle called a ‘tip.’ The junior reporters had time to make their own tips. Following the guidance of Dr. Wonjun Jang, the reporters grabbed the long wire with an angle, and cut it by pulling strongly. Dr. Jang explained, “Like a finger feeling Braille to read letters, an STM locates atoms by scanning the metal surface with a tip.”

Reporter So-Hyun Do admired, "It's so amazing that you can see atoms with the tip I made." There are several STMs in QNS’s labs. One of the STMs is huge, reaching 4.5m in height. Just in time, one STM was taking a break from taking measurements, so the reporters could go into the room. When the reporters went into the room to look at it, they suddenly got dizzy. Sunny Kim said, “The whole room is floating on air springs full of air to block external vibrations. You can feel a little bit dizzy.”

“What do scientists and children have in common?”
Interview with director Andreas Heinrich

Director Andreas Heinrich, who leads QNS, emphasized the importance of curiosity several times in the interview with junior reporters, saying, “What scientists and children have in common is we both have a lot of curiosity.” He said, however, "People tend to lose their curiosity as they grow up." He added, “Just as musicians create new music with their creativity based on their composing skills, scientists should be creative in research based on scientific knowledge.” The reporters nodded at Andreas’s advice. "Never lose your curiosity, stay curious about everything, and ask questions" while saying that he also mentioned that “it's always fun to talk to children who are full of curiosity.”

Q. How is your day like?

A. The difference between a school and a laboratory is that in a school, the teacher tells you everything. In a laboratory, however, nobody knows what the results of the experiment will be. So everyone, including me, is working together to understand the experimental results. To this end, we meet to talk a lot with other researchers, trying to understand what is going on in the experiments. In addition to this, there is a lot of discussion about how to organize the research group in the future and how to conduct experiments.

Q. I heard you worked in the US for a long time. What is the difference with Korea?

A. Korea makes good state-of-the-art equipment. In the beginning of QNS, one of our advisory board members Young Kuk, president of DIGIST, said “In Korea, nothing is possible and everything is possible.” It is true that countries such as the United States, Germany, and Japan are leading in the field of basic science. Still, in the past 20 years, Korea has also invested a lot in basic science, and now basic science research in Korea is growing rapidly. I'm really happy to be a part of this.

Q. What is the reason you have to reduce external vibrations in your lab?

A. The Ewha Womans University’s Research Cooperation building, where you and I are now, is the building with the best vibration control in Korea. This is because the building was especially built for STM labs. Seeing atoms with an STM is like using a rod as long as the distance between Seoul and Busan to manipulate a ball that is only a few centimeters in front of the tip of the rod. It is a difficult task that requires very precise manipulation. If the rod vibrates, precise operation is cannot happen. This is why the vibration should be reduced as much as possible. In fact, even in a typical building, there is always vibration. We can eliminate this vibration to be about 1 million times less than in a common office space.

Q. Is there anything you want to make in the end?

A. I think of myself as an explorer. There's still so much we don't know about this world. The researchers at QNS and I are on a quest to find out how atoms communicate with each other. My dream is to make new discoveries in the world of quantum nanoscience that no one understands. That would be a huge discovery. Then I would be really happy.

If I could make something for children, I would like to make a sequel to 'A Boy and His Atom.' The purpose of this film is to introduce science to children. I also want to make emojis using atoms. Do you guys have any fun emoji ideas?

Director Heinrich made the movie ‘A Boy and His Atom’ using an STM and atoms in 2013.
It was entered the Guinness Book of Records for the world's smallest film.