Researchers working with the world's most powerful electron microscope have filmed carbon atoms in live motion for the first time, as the atoms repositioned themselves around the edge of a hole punched into a graphene sheet.
Viewers of the 'movie' that promises to become a blockbuster - at least over the Internet - observed chemical bonds breaking and forming as the suddenly volatile atoms are driven to find a stable configuration. Graphene is a form of carbon.
At the nanoscale, "the addition or subtraction of even a single atom can have dramatic consequences for mechanical, optical, electronic, thermal and magnetic properties of the material", said physicist Alex Zettl of the Berkeley National Lab, who led this research.
"The ability to see individual atoms move around in real time and to see how the atomic configuration evolves and influences system properties is somewhat akin to a biologist being able to watch as cells divide and a higher order structure with complex functionality evolves," he added.
This 'Quick Time' movie produced with the TEAM 0.5 microscope shows the growth of a hole and the atomic edge reconstruction in a graphene sheet. TEAM stands for Transmission Electron Aberration-corrected Microscope.
TEAM 0.5, the newest instrument at Berkeley Lab's National Centre for Electron Microscopy (NCEM), the premier centre for electron microscopy and micro-characterisation in the US, is capable of producing images of objects smaller than a single hydrogen atom.
"The real-time observation of the movements of edge atoms could lead to a new level of understanding and control of nanomaterials," said NCEM director Ulrich Dahmen of this achievement with TEAM 0.5.
According to a Berkeley release, Christian Kisielowski, NCEM principal investigator and co-author of this paper, said: "In fact it gets us one step closer to understanding artificial photosynthesis, which is considered to be an ultimate energy technology and is being pursued at Berkeley Lab through the Helios Project".
These findings appeared in the March issue of Science.