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Here Is the World’s First X

May 28, 2023May 28, 2023

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For decades, science has gotten better and better at glimpsing the previously invisible by capturing the microscopic world of atoms—the building blocks of everything.

In a new paper, scientists from Ohio University, Argonne National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois-Chicago have X-rayed a single atom for the first time.

X-raying atoms will help scientists to better understand their chemical states, which could lead to advancements in medicine and technology.

Atoms make up everything, so it makes sense that scientists want to image them in every way imaginable. In 2008, for instance, physicists imaged a hydrogen atom using an electron microscope. In 2013, scientists glimpsed an atom's electrons using a quantum microscope. And in 2018, a student from the University of Oxford even imaged an atom using a store bought camera.

Now, scientists from Ohio University, Argonne National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois-Chicago have X-rayed the first atom. This is a groundbreaking advancement, as understanding an atom at its most minuscule could lead to advancements in medical and environmental sciences.

X-rays are well-suited for investigating atoms, as their wavelength distribution mimics the size of an atom. But before this demonstration—published Wednesday in the journal Nature—the smallest X-ray possible only had the resolution to make images clear down to the size of an attogram, or about 10,000 atoms. At the time, an atom's X-ray emissions were considered too weak to be detected. But all that's changed.

"Atoms can be routinely imaged with scanning probe microscopes, but without X-rays one cannot tell what they are made of," Ohio University and lead author Saw Wai Hla said in a statement. "We can now detect exactly the type of a particular atom, one atom-at-a-time, and can simultaneously measure its chemical state."

In the demonstration, Hla and his team used an Iron (Fe) atom and a terbium (Tb) atom—both housed in a supramolecule host—and a complex technique known as synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopy (SX-STM). This process works by running a sharp tip over a surface and generating an image from the tip (not unlike a record needle reading a vinyl records’ grooves, Ars Technica notes).

Leveraging a phenomenon known as "quantum tunneling"—where quantum particles occasionally hop through solid objects—the excited core atoms tunnel to this tip, forming a kind of elemental fingerprint that identifies both each individual atom present and their chemical states. Hla explains:

"We have detected the chemical states of individual atoms as well. By comparing the chemical states of an iron atom and a terbium atom inside respective molecular hosts, we find that the terbium atom, a rare-earth metal, is rather isolated and does not change its chemical state, while the iron atom strongly interacts with its surrounding."

Understanding atoms and their chemical states at their most fundamental will allow scientists to better manipulate materials—such as the rare-earth metals found in nearly every electronic device—to make them more efficient.

As scientists continue to find ways to image the very small, they’re simultaneously discovering the very big implications of those world-changing breakthroughs.

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