Atoms are the building blocks of all matter on Earth, and the patterns in which they are arranged dictate how strong, conductive or flexible a material will be. Now, users from UCLA have partnered with Molecular Foundry staff to use the TEAM microscope to image the three-dimensional positions of individual atoms to a precision of 19 trillionths of a meter, which is several times smaller than a hydrogen atom.
For more than 100 years, researchers have inferred how atoms are arranged in three-dimensional space using a technique called X-ray crystallography, which involves measuring how light waves scatter off of a crystal. However, X-ray crystallography only yields information about the average positions of many billions of atoms in the crystal, and not about individual atoms’ precise coordinates.
The ability to measure the specific locations of each atom in a material make it possible, for the first time, to infer the macroscopic properties of materials based on their structural arrangements of atoms, which will guide how scientists and engineers create new materials and build new devices.