The world's first X-ray of a single atom

Thinking about x-rays may trigger memories of broken bones or dental exams. But this highly active light can show us more than just our bones: it's also used to study the molecular world, and even biochemical reactions in real time. But one problem is that researchers have never been able to study a single atom using X-rays. So far.

Scientists have been able to characterize a single atom using X-rays. Not only could they distinguish the type of atoms they were seeing (there were two different atoms), but they were also able to study the chemical behavior these atoms were exhibiting.

“Atoms can be routinely imaged using scanning microscopes, but without One at a time, and we can measure their chemical state at the same time.” A statement.

“Once we are able to do this, we can trace materials down to the final limit of just one atom. This will have a huge impact on environmental and medical science and perhaps a cure will be found that could have a huge impact on humanity. This discovery will change the world.”

Scanning tunneling microscopy of supramolecular assemblies of terbium molecules, with the terbium atom at the center of each structure.

Image credit: Ajayi et al., Nature, 2023

The work was able to trace an iron atom and a terbium atom, an element that is part of the so-called rare earth metals. Both are inserted into their molecular hosts. The conventional X-ray detector is supplemented with an additional special detector. The latter had a specialized sharp metal tip that had to be placed close to the sample to collect the X-ray excited electrons. Through the measurements collected by the party, the team was able to determine whether it was iron or terbium, and that is not all.

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“We discovered the chemical states of individual atoms as well,” Hala explained. “By comparing the chemical states of the iron atom and the terbium atom within their molecular hosts, we find that the terbium atom, a rare earth metal, is fairly isolated and does not change its chemical state while the iron atom interacts strongly with its atoms. The ocean.”

Rubidium atoms

Images of supramolecular assemblies containing six rubidium atoms and an iron atom.

Image credit: Ajayi et al., Nature, 2023

The signal seen by the detector was compared to a fingerprint. It allows researchers to understand the composition of the sample, as well as study its physical and chemical properties. This can be critical for improving performance and application of a variety of common and uncommon materials.

“The technique used and the concept demonstrated in this study have opened new horizons in X-ray science and nanoscale studies,” said Tolulope Michael Ajayi, who is first author on the paper and is doing this work as part of his doctoral thesis. “What's more, using X-rays to detect and characterize individual atoms could revolutionize research and generate new technologies in areas such as quantum information and trace element detection in environmental and medical research, to name a few. This achievement also opens the way for new science tools.” Advanced materials.

The study is published in the journal nature.

A previous version of this article was published in May 2023.

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