Boffins snap X-ray closeup of single atom – and by closeup we mean nanometres

12 years of blood, sweat, and science went into success.

It only took US scientists 12 years to create a method and a highly effective X-ray device to successfully take the first X-ray image of a single atom.

After twelve years of work, a group of researchers from Ohio University, Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and other institutions have finally managed to obtain an X-ray image of a real iron atom that, unlike earlier atomic-scale snapshots, actually enables the identification of the individual atom.

"Scanning probe microscopes can be used to routinely examine atoms, but without X-rays, it is impossible to determine their composition. One atom at a time, we can now determine precisely the type of an atom while also measuring its chemical state, according to the project's lead scientist, Saw Wai Hla, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, professor of physics at Ohio University, and director of the Nanoscale and Quantum Phenomena Institute at OU.

fresh approach

Synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopy, often known as SX-STM, is the method used by the microscope created especially for this new kind of imaging. That method itself is a mix of scanning probes, which are often used to capture photos of amorphous atoms, and synchrotron X-ray imaging, which makes use of a far more dazzling kind of radiation that can be precisely controlled to capture atomic-level X-ray images.

By placing an instrument's tip just nanometers from a surface and applying an electric current to agitate the atoms in its target, scanning tunneling microscopy may create amazing tiny pictures. Although excellent at producing bumps and nanoscopic waves, there is no way to identify the atoms being scanned.

Here's where synchrotron radiation comes in. It has the capacity to investigate properties like molecular bonds or individual atoms by penetrating the depths of matter.

In order to picture atoms by "photoabsorption of core level electrons," which the researchers said implies they can record the elemental fingerprints of a specific atom, you need to combine your scanning tunnel microscope and synchrotron radiation. In this instance, the experiment included 1 atom of iron.

Tolulope Michael Ajayi, a PhD student at Ohio University and the study's lead author, said that using X-rays to identify and characterize individual atoms "could revolutionize research and give rise to new technologies in areas like quantum information and the detection of trace elements in environmental and medical research."

An extraordinary achievement

The scientists had to build a supramolecule out of a single iron atom and many terbium atoms in order to capture the image. Hla's team also searched for the effects of various settings on single rare-earth atoms like terbium in addition to photographing iron.

"By comparing the chemical states of an iron atom and a terbium atom inside respective molecular hosts, we find that the iron atom strongly interacts with its surroundings while the terbium atom, a rare-earth metal, is rather isolated and does not change its chemical state," Hla stated.

That implies that the group has virtually found out how to distinguish between chemical states of elements as well as individual elements at the atomic level. They've also figured out how to use their technology with a novel method dubbed "X-ray excited resonance tunneling," which, according to them, enables the detection of a single molecule's orbital orientation on a material's surface.

According to Hla, this finding could enable future scientists to use synchrotron X-rays to experiment with the "quantum and spin (magnetic) properties of just one atom." The team will continue to investigate new applications for the technology in fields including studying the collecting of essential elements and other atomic developments.