IBM is developing a nanoscale GPS

It is an irony of modern life that GPS has made finding your location during a trip to a remote mountain range easier than positioning a microscope in an air-conditioned lab, where the level of precision required below a certain scale makes moving the probe to the desired location a major undertaking. That’s the latest challenge that the scientists at IBM have taken it upon themselves to solve.

The fruit of their efforts became public for the first time in a patent application published this week, which reveals a brand new scientific positioning system capable of accurately pinpointing microscopic objects in near real-time.  It’s effectively a scaled-down implementation of the magneto-resistive sensors used in urban traffic management that triangulates objects based on the changes they cause in its magnetic field.  

IBM has heavily adapted the concept for its intended use scenario, scaling down the detection component to a strip of conductive sandwiched between two ferromagnetic layers measuring in the micrometers. It’s designed to work in concert with a third magnet shaped roughly like a square that is installed on the object being manipulated to serve a sort of tracking device.

The sensory stack is aligned to maximize the density of the magnetic field to the point where the system is able to withstand even the highest levels of interference that normally occur at the kind of distances in which the tracker is meant to operate. That makes it possible to exploit the accuracy of magnetic-resistive detection in scales where only less reliable thermoelectric mechanics could be used before.

There are numerous other fields besides microscopy that could benefit from the micrometer-level precision that the technology facilitates, most notably chip manufacturing,  which is not coincidentally a key strategic focus for IBM. And who knows, a version of the system might one day even be attached to nanomachines in order to help coordinate work on some futuristic project or medical treatment.