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Scientists Capture First X-Ray of a Single Atom

First X-Ray of a Single Atom
A team of scientists led by Professor Saw Wai Hla from the University of Ohio and the Argonne National Laboratory captured the first x-ray of a single atom. Credit: Greg Stewart / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

X-rays have been around since they were discovered by Roentgen in 1895. They have been used in many different ways, like diagnosing health conditions at the doctor’s office or checking for prohibited items at the airport.

X-rays can go through objects, and depending on the composition of the object, it absorbs different amounts of radiation. This helps us create images that show things like broken bones.

Now, a group of scientists led by Professor Saw Wai Hla from the University of Ohio and the Argonne National Laboratory have conducted new research.

They were able to take an X-ray of just one single atom. This is a big deal because it could have a huge impact on materials science and maybe even medicine.

The researchers explained their achievements in a scientific journal called Nature.

Use of ‘Synchrotron X-ray’

The scientists used a special kind of X-ray technology called synchrotron X-ray. This involves speeding up electrons to create a really powerful source of energy. Before this study, it was difficult to take pictures of anything smaller than 10,000 atoms. But the team found a way to do it.

They made a special tool that they could put really close to the atoms they wanted to study. This tool is called synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopy, or SX-STM for short. It measures the electrons that get agitated by the X-rays, and that helps the scientists figure out which atom they’re looking at.

Testing of an iron and terbium atom

To test their new method, the team conducted an experiment where they placed a single iron atom and a single atom of terbium in special groups of atoms called supramolecular assemblies. These assemblies also contained other tiny “building blocks.”

By using their X-ray technique, the researchers were not only able to successfully image the individual atoms, but they also gained insights into their chemical properties in a whole new way.

Professor Hla, the team leader, said that they were able to identify the different chemical characteristics of individual atoms. In particular, when comparing an iron atom and a terbium atom within their respective molecular hosts, they discovered interesting differences.

He further said that the terbium atom remained relatively isolated and didn’t undergo significant changes in its chemical state. On the other hand, the iron atom interacted strongly with the surrounding environment.

Tolulope Michael Ajayi, the first author of the paper and a Ph.D. student whose research greatly contributed to this discovery, said that the method and idea employed in this study have allowed significant advances in X-ray science and nanoscale investigations.

Furthermore, the utilization of X-rays for the detection and characterization of individual atoms has the potential to revolutionize various areas of research, Ajayi further explained.

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