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For the first time ever, a single atom is examined by scientists using X-rays

by OnverZe
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In the most potent X-ray facilities in the world, researchers may examine samples that are 10,000 atoms or smaller. Although it has been extremely challenging to obtain smaller sizes, a multi-institutional collaboration has scaled down to a single atom.

“X-ray beams are used everywhere, including security scanning, medical imaging, and basic research,” said Saw Wai Hla, a physicist at the Ohio University and employee of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. But ever since X-rays were discovered in 1895, scientists haven’t been able to find and study a single atom. For many years, scientists have yearned to be able to achieve this. Today, we can.

Scientists from Argonne and numerous institutions describe being able to characterise the elemental type and chemical characteristics of only one atom by employing X-ray beams, as just reported in Nature (“Characterization of just one atom using synchrotron X-rays”). The creation of new technologies and basic research in many scientific fields will be impacted by this new capacity.

An X-ray beam’s findings provide a kind of fingerprint for the many types of components that make up a substance. For instance, the NASA Curiosity rover collected tiny samples of Martian sand and later discovered through X-ray research that their composition is comparable to volcanic soil in Hawaii.

Scientists may examine samples as tiny as a billionth of a billionth of a gramme using powerful X-ray generators known as synchrotron light sources. These samples have roughly 10,000 atoms in them. Although smaller scales have proven to be extremely challenging to attain, the team made an incredible advancement and scaled down their observations to a single atom.

“The word transformative gets bandied about a lot, but I believe this discovery is truly a major breakthrough,” said Hla. I was so ecstatic that I had a hard time falling asleep as I considered potential applications in the creation of batteries and microelectronic devices, as well as in environmental and medical studies.

One atom must be separated from other atoms of the same kind in order to characterise it with X-rays. To achieve this, the group first incorporated a single iron atom into a multi-element nanometer-sized molecule.

The sample was subsequently brought to Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) for examination using the intense X-ray beam. At a beamline (XTIP) shared by the APS and the Centre for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), the researchers found the lone atom in the sample. Both are Argonne user facilities for the DOE Office of Science. A scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM) probe is part of the beamline.

“A DOE Early Career Research Programme Award that I received in 2012 allowed me to form a team of passionate scientists and engineers to develop the microscopy technique used in this study,” said Volker Rose, a physicist at the APS and the CNM. Thanks to further DOE money, “we developed and built this unique microscope at the XTIP beamline.”

The sample releases electrons as a result of being bombarded with photons from the X-ray beams. The STM probe, which is positioned less than a nanometer above the sample surface, gathers the electric signal brought on by the emitting electrons. The resultant spectra, which are graphs of current against photon energy, serve as the periodic table’s “fingerprints” for the various elements. Every component has an own fingerprint. Thus, by probing the sample surface, scientists are able to pinpoint the element and position of a specific atom.

More exists. From the same spectrum, they may also infer the atom’s chemical state. The ability of atoms to lose a certain number of electrons has to do with the chemical state; for instance, iron can lose two, three, or four electrons. The chemical state of an atom represents the amount of missing electrons and is crucial information for scientists to understand since it influences the atom’s physical, chemical, and electrical characteristics.

The scientists successfully carried out the same X-ray study on the rare earth element terbium to demonstrate the new capability’s wider usefulness. Microelectronics, batteries, aeroplane construction, and other things depend on rare earths. Other than metals, other elements can also be used using this procedure. Scientists may then utilise single atoms in materials in novel ways by understanding their characteristics.

Research in fields including quantum information technology, the environment, and medicine will all benefit from the ability to analyse each atom at a time, according to Hla.

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