While your typical X-ray might involve a lead apron draped on you while your dentist snaps photos of your mouth, the process can actually snapshot objects much, much smaller and more precise than just your molars. Doing so allows scientists to study the very building blocks that make up all matter in the universe–and could even lead to better hardware for technology in the future.
For a long time, though, there was a limit to what scientists could X-ray. The smallest objects X-rays could observe were on the scale of attograms (or 10,000 atoms or more). A multi-university group has surpassed that record after successfully taking an X-ray image of one atom.
In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the authors used a new type of X-ray instrument to detect the incredibly minute signals of just one atom. This achievement, according to the authors, opens up future X-ray analysis for atomic structures and molecules in general. It could also allow scientists to customize atoms within different materials for specific technologies.
” Using scanning probe microscopy, atoms can be imaged, but without X rays it is impossible to tell their composition,” said Saw Wai Hla. He’s a physicist from Ohio University and Argonne. “We can now detect exactly the type of a particular atom, one atom-at-a-time, and can simultaneously measure its chemical state.”
To achieve this, the team created a specialized X-ray detector with a metal tip pointed extremely close to a single atom. This allowed them to gather the electrons needed to obtain an X-ray level image of the atom and its environment via a process known as quantum tunneling. Scientists can identify minute details of materials with this technique.
The goal of the investigation was specifically to analyze the atoms of commonly used material elements like iron and terbium. The ability to analyse single atoms of these elements allows researchers to gather data about the element’s environment and its changing chemical state. Material scientists will be able to use these insights to create better and more advanced hardware, such as microchips and batteries, for devices like laptops and smartphones.
“This will have a great impact on environmental and medical sciences and maybe even find a cure that can have a huge impact for humankind,” Hla added. “This discovery will transform the world.”
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