Existing microelectromechanical devices can determine the mass of tiny objects weighing 10-18 grams (attograms). However, all such devices require extremely controlled conditions in which to work, such as high vacuum, extremely low temperatures and superconducting magnets. This is because it is difficult to detect the miniscule mechanical motion of the tiny machines, which typically consist of an oscillating cantilever made from a small wafer of semiconducting material a few microns long and several hundred nanometres wide.

The Caltech team's approach is fundamentally different in that it has used metallic films as the sensing layer material in its cantilevers instead of the commonly used semiconductors. The researchers say that their technique overcomes a mindset in sensing that has thwarted the realization of such nanoscale sensors so far. "This change not only greatly simplifies the fabrication process, but also enables us to make extremely small working devices at the nanoscale," explains team member Mo Li. Equally important is the fact that the researchers can detect accurately the mechanical motion of their devices, even when the machines are moving at very high frequencies of between 30 MHz and 300 MHz – something that was impossible with cantilevers made from semiconducting materials.

Another unexpected property of these nanocantilevers, compared with microcantilevers, is their substantially reduced viscous damping when operated at atmospheric pressure. This is because their small cross-sectional dimensions (400 nm wide by 80 nm thick) are on par with the mean free path of air molecules in the atmosphere (around 65 nm). The nanodevices can therefore operate under ambient conditions.

Roukes and colleagues demonstrated that their cantilevers can measure masses on the attogram scale with a resolution of just 100 zeptograms (10-19 grams) – a new record under these conditions.

"These nanocantilevers are very versatile platforms for diverse sensing applications," said Li. "One ongoing project in our group has already shown that these devices are very sensitive, fast chemical gas sensors that could be used in chemical weapons detection, for example." Other potential applications include electromechanical "noses" for breath analysis and early disease diagnosis, batch fabricated pressure sensors and even components for pace makers, he added.

The Caltech physicists would now like to create an array of hundreds of individual cantilevers, each of which is tailored to detect specific chemical species. They describe such a device as the electromechanical equivalent of a dog's nose.

The team will report its work in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.