Scientists used one of the world’s most powerful electron microscopes to map the precise location and chemical type of 23,000 atoms in an extremely small particle made of iron and platinum.
The 3-D reconstruction reveals the arrangement of atoms in unprecedented detail, enabling the scientists to measure chemical order and disorder in individual grains, which sheds light on the material’s properties at the single-atom level. Insights gained from the particle’s structure could lead to new ways to improve its magnetic performance for use in high-density, next-generation hard drives.
What’s more, the technique used to create the reconstruction, atomic electron tomography (which is like an incredibly high-resolution CT scan), lays the foundation for precisely mapping the atomic composition of other useful nanoparticles. This could reveal how to optimize the particles for more efficient catalysts, stronger materials, and disease-detecting fluorescent tags.
Atoms are the building blocks of matter, and the patterns in which they’re arranged dictate a material’s properties. These patterns can also be exploited to greatly improve a material’s function, which is why scientists are eager to determine the 3-D structure of nanoparticles at the smallest scale possible.
The scientists’ work hinged on the use of one of the highest-resolution transmission electron microscopes in the world, called TEAM I, located at the Molecular Foundry. The microscope scans a sample with a focused beam of electrons, and then measures how the electrons interact with the atoms in the sample. It also has a piezo-controlled stage that positions samples with unmatched stability and position-control accuracy.
The researchers began growing an iron-platinum nanoparticle from its constituent elements, and then stopped the particle’s growth before it was fully formed. They placed the “partially baked” particle in the TEAM I stage, obtained a 2-D projection of its atomic structure, rotated it a few degrees, obtained another projection, and so on. Each 2-D projection provides a little more information about the full 3-D structure of the nanoparticle.
They sent the projections to users at UCLA, who used a sophisticated computer algorithm to convert the 2-D projections into a 3-D reconstruction of the particle. The individual atomic coordinates and chemical types were then traced from the 3-D density based on the knowledge that iron atoms are lighter than platinum atoms. The resulting atomic structure contains 6,569 iron atoms and 16,627 platinum atoms, with each atom’s coordinates precisely plotted to less than the width of a hydrogen atom.