Monday, February 11, 2008

Viewing atoms through a microscope

Futurismic reports: [edited]

The world’s most powerful transmission electron microscope has been installed at the Department of Energy’s National Center for Electron Microscopy (NCEM) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Dubbed TEAM 0.5 (TEAM stands for Transmission Electron Aberration-corrected Microscope) it can produce images with a resolution of a half-angstrom: half of a ten-billionth of a meter, or less than the diameter of a single hydrogen atom. The test image above shows the arrangement of atoms formed where two gold crystals meet.

Advances in electronics and computer technology make the new microscope possible, enabling it to counteract spherical aberration (the aberration that, in an out-of-focus image, makes points of light look like disks), which also enables it to maintain its high resolution with a lower-energy beam of electrons, less likely to alter the subject. TEAM 1, due to be up and running next year, will also be able to counteract chromatic aberration, cased by different wavelengths of electrons being refracted at different angles by the microscope’s magnetic lenses.

The microscope can literally focus atom by atom in a sample, and with a new stage to be installed in TEAM 1, scientists will be able to manoeuvre samples with such fine control that they’ll be able to create a 3D image of the atomic structure. As the project leader puts it:

"This brings us within reach of meeting the great challenge posed by the famous physicist Richard Feynman in 1959: the ability to analyze any chemical substance simply by looking to see where the atoms are."

TEAM 0.5 and its components are now undergoing testing and tuning, and the microscope should be available to outside users starting this fall.

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