IBM 'X-Rays' A Molecule

The imaging breakthrough could lead to the development of smaller and faster processors and memory devices.
IBM Images A Molecule's Inner Structure
(click image for larger view)
IBM Images A Molecule's Inner Structure
Image courtesy of IBM Research - Zurich
IBM scientists claim to be the first to image the inner structure of a molecule, opening up new possibilities in building smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient computing components.

The achievement, reported in the August 28 issue of Science magazine, is described as a milestone in surface microscopy, which pushes the exploration of using molecules and atoms in the field of nanotechnology.

"Though not an exact comparison, if you think about how a doctor uses an x-ray to image bones and organs inside the human body, we are using the atomic force microscope to image the atomic structures that are the backbones of individual molecules," IBM Researcher Gerhard Meyer said in a statement.

The latest publication comes two months after IBM scientists used the same complex technique known as "non-contact atomic force microscopy" to measure the charge states of atoms within a molecule. That work, combined with the latest achievement, are considered breakthroughs in the investigation of how an electrical charge transmits through molecules or molecular networks.

An understanding of how a charge is distributed at the atomic scale is essential for building smaller, more powerful, and more energy-efficient computing components than today's processors and memory devices, IBM said.

In imaging the inner structure of a molecule, IBM scientists in Zurich, Switzerland, operated an atomic force microscope at an ultra-high vacuum at minus 451 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, the researchers for the first time were able to look through the electron cloud covering the molecule to see its atomic backbone.

Atomic force microscopy, or AFM, uses a sharp metal tip to measure the tiny forces between the tip and within the molecule to create an image. The image created by IBM scientists was of an organic molecule called a Pentacene, consisting of 22 carbon atoms and 14 hydrogen atoms measuring 1.4 nanometers in length.

The researchers imaged the carbon atoms, which were only 0.14 of a nanometer apart, or about 1 millionth the diameter of a grain of sand. From this image, scientists deduced the positions of the hydrogen atoms.

A particular challenge in the imaging process was getting the tip of the AFM within a half nanometer from the molecule without disturbing it. To achieve this, a carbon monoxide molecule was placed at the tip, which acted as a powerful magnifying glass able to capture a 3D map of the molecule's inner structure.

The IBM scientists who worked on the project were Meyer, Leo Gross, Fabian Mohn, and Nikolaj Moll. The researchers worked in collaboration with Peter Liljeroth of Utrecht University. A video of the scientists describing their work is on YouTube.

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