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Picture Perfect

These Photos Make Molecular Structures Look Like Psychedelic Art

November 6th 19__Kristin Houser__Filed Under: Hard Science
Colin Ophus/Berkeley Lab

Scope It Out

Electron microscopes are great at producing high-resolution images of a material’s atomic structure — if the material is hard, that is. Unfortunately, the devices’ electron beams can destroy softer materials, so scientists typically rely on X-rays, which can’t reach atomic resolution, to image those.

But scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have published a pair of studies in the journals Nature Communications and Nature Materials showing how a technique called 4D-STEM allowed them to use electron microscopy to image soft materials without destroying them.

And the images resulting from their research are downright gorgeous.

Image Credit: Colin Ophus/Berkeley Lab

Double Time

According to a newly published press release, the Nature Communications study focused on the use of 4D-STEM to image bulk metallic glass, which has an unpredictable molecular structure. This allowed the researchers to identify atomic-scale weak points in the material that could ultimately cause it to fracture under stress.

For the Nature Materials study, meanwhile, the researchers used the 4D-STEM technique to image the molecular ordering in a semiconductor before and after the introduction of a processing additive — research that, according to the press release, could impact the field of solar energy.

“[I]n these studies, we’ve shown that when 4D-STEM is deployed with our high-speed detectors, customizable algorithms, and powerful electron microscopes, the technique can help scientists map out atomic or molecular regions in any material — even beam-sensitive, soft materials — that weren’t possible to see with previous techniques,” lead researcher Andrew Minor said in the press release.

READ MORE: World-Leading Microscopes Take Candid Snapshots of Atoms in Their ‘Neighborhoods’ [Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory]

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