World's most powerful microscope gives 3-D look at atomic structures

12-foot electron microscope should propel nanotech research at Lawrence Berkeley Lab

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory made a big leap in their research into all things small.

Within the past few months, scientists there began using what they say is the world's most powerful microscope -- a 12-foot-tall electron microscope that officials said enables researchers to see 3-D images of atomic structures.

And that kind of information will aid them in advancing nanotechnology research, said scientists working with the microscope.

The Electron Aberration-corrected Microscope, delivered to the Berkeley lab between Thanksgiving and Christmas, 2007, lets scientists see smaller objects than is possible with a traditional light microscope, said Peter Denes, director of the microscope project at the Berkeley, Calif.-based lab.

The electron microscope uses an electron beam instead of light. As the beam passes through something, the electrons scatter depending on what was in their way. The scatter pattern is then used to create the image that the scientist sees, Denes added.

"This new microscope goes beyond what we could do before," he said. "I don't know what we'll find with this microscope. The goal is always to discover the unknown, and that's a little bit hard to predict. The microscope can see things that were not visible before, so it should open up new areas and new discoveries."

The microscope was built by was built by FEI Co. in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, which runs the Berkeley lab, the University of Illinois system, the Argonne National Laboratory, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and CEOS GmbH, a maker of optical components in Heidelberg, Germany.

The new equipment was built as part of an effort to see three dimensions at an atomic level. The $27 million project, which includes the new microscope, a second electron microscope slated for delivery before the end of 2009 and a five-year research effort, is being funded by the Department of Energy.

Denes explained that the new microscope has a resolution of half an angstrom. To give some perspective on that, a fingernail grows 10 angstroms every second, and the continental drift moves at 10 angstroms per second.

"If you have two things spaced half an angstrom apart, you could tell them apart [with this new microscope]," said Denes. "But more importantly, it's not just the ability to tell them apart but the clarity and contrast in the image. ... It's not as simple as looking at a picture and being able to tell what it is. You need to be able to interpret what you see."

And being able to interpret atomic structures should help scientists create new nanotechnology.

"Understanding the atomic structure of materials helps you know how to design them," said Denes. "Knowing how to set up the patterns ... where to put the atoms, how the interfaces between two different types of materials works is very important. It's all about how to custom-design materials."

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