Scientists Capture World’s Very First X-Ray of a Single Atom

Scientists Announce X-Ray of a Single Atom

Supramolecular assemblies of six rubidium and one iron atom. (Photo: Ajayi et al./Nature)

For the average person, X-ray specs might still be the stuff of superhero novels; but for scientists who regularly work with X-rays, the technology just took a huge leap forward. X-rays are electromagnetic radiation with higher energy “content” than our visible light. They pass through objects which, depending on the material, absorb different amounts of radiation. This produces data often presented as images, for example, of broken bones. Now, a team of scientists led by Professor Saw Wai Hla, from the University of Ohio and the Argonne National Laboratory, have managed to X-ray a single atom—an incredible technological leap with huge ramifications for materials science and perhaps even medicine.

The study, published in Nature, explains that researchers achieved this feat with a technology called synchrotron X-ray. This technique involves accelerating electrons to make an extremely high energy source. Before this most recent study, only an attogram (10,000 atoms or more) was possible to image given the difficulty of finding a receptor that could register smaller X-ray signals. The team solved this problem by creating a specialized probe which had to be placed extremely close to the atoms in question. This is known as synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopy or SX-STM. By measuring the electrons excited by the X-rays, the probe could identify which atom it was.

The team tested this by placing an iron atom and an atom of terbium into supramolecular assemblies including other atoms and tiny “building blocks.” In addition to X-raying the single atom effectively, they learned about its chemical properties in new ways. “We have detected the chemical states of individual atoms as well,” Professor Hla explains. “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.”

“The technique used, and concept proven in this study, broke new ground in X-ray science and nanoscale studies,” says Tolulope Michael Ajayi, first author of the paper whose Ph.D. thesis work advanced this discovery. “More so, using X-rays to detect and characterize individual atoms could revolutionize research and give birth to new technologies in areas such as quantum information and the detection of trace elements in environmental and medical research, to name a few. This achievement also opens the road for advanced materials science instrumentation.”

Now, the team can turn their atomically focused eyes towards other elements, learning so much more about the tiny building blocks of our world.

Scientists have used cutting-edge technology to capture an X-ray of a single atom for the first time ever.

Scientists Announce X-Ray of a Single Atom

Rubidium atoms are blue and the iron atom is red. (Photo: Ajayi et al./Nature)

The team created new technology to allow the X-ray of something so small, and were able to identify the elements at hand.

Scientists Announce X-Ray of a Single Atom

On the left is a terbium supramolecular assembly (terbium is cyan, bromine is blue, oxygen is red). On the right is an SX-STM image of the terbium supramolecular assemblies. (Photo: Ajayi et al./Nature)

h/t: [IFL Science, Science Alert]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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