How Physicists Image Individual Atoms


Image: Lee Park/Purdue University
Image: Lee Park/Purdue University
Until 1981, the atom was a sort of imaginary entity. We knew it was there, of course, and we could even measure and observe it via a number of different techniques—including field ion microscopy—but we couldn’t just go and look at an atom in the same way that we could peer into a microscope and look at some biological cells.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

Then, in 1981, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer came along with the scanning tunneling microscope, which allowed scientists to look at surfaces at atomic scales for the first time. The pair won the Nobel Prize for the accomplishment in 1986. Here, in the latest of Physics World’s 100 Second Science series, the physicist Peter Wahl explains how the thing actually works.


This Microscope can see down to Individual Atoms

Image: ​Q M Ramasse, M Schaffer SuperSTEM Laboratory, K Marquardt GFZ Postdam
As our devices get ever smaller, so do the materials we use to make them. And that means you have to get really close to see them. Really close. A new electron microscope unveiled at the UK’s national SuperST​EM facility images objects at an unprecedented resolution, right down to the individual atoms.

By Victoria Turk|MOTHERBOARD

SuperSTEM is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and has three electron microscopes that UK scientists can use. The newest was unveiled last m​onth: a £3.7 million ($5.5 million) Nion Hermes Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope that EPSRC says is one of only three in the world. It can image objects a million times smaller than a human hair.

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