Is it a close-up image of a spider’s eye? Maybe it’s a cross-section of the top of a plant stem? Or perhaps it’s a UFO, seen on one of NASA’s space telescopes, or even a new type of alien bug?
Nope, you’ll probably not believe this, but what you’re looking at here is an incredible image of a single molecule. The little balls are atoms, joined together by physical bonds. If you look closely you can even see that the atoms in the middle have shorter, more intense bonds than the outside. The molecule is a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, meaning the atoms you see there in the ring are carbon atoms joined by strong carbon-carbon bonds.
A team at IBM used a modification of the atomic force microscopy (AFM) technique to scan over the molecule. It’s not the first time IBM have attempted this, as it managed to grab a somewhat blurry image of something similar back in 2009, but the clarity this time round is absolutely amazing. It’s hard to really put into words how big an achievement this is. Just think how absolutely, unfathomably tiny a single molecule is, and imagine trying to eliminate all vibrations from it, and the equipment, on such an impossibly minuscule scale, to get that clear an image.
The possibilities going forward are endless, but one immediately achievable task could be to use this technique to scan single-atom layers of graphene for imperfections. Hopefully that’ll help scientists work out how to use it to speed up chips, and therefore our phones, computers and tablets. That really would be science in action, and something we can all benefit from on the ground.
Image credit: IBM