Back in the 1920s, when brilliant minds such as Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, or Niels Bohr were desperately trying to understand the atom, they rapidly figured out one disturbing fact: atoms are so defiant and unique that they cannot be represented otherwise but using abstract mathematics. Atoms disobey all rules of classical mechanics. In other words, all those images of atoms that we’ve ever seen are just symbolic.
For the very first time in history, scientists were able to X-ray a single atom. Sai Wai Hla, a co-author of the study and who also works as a physicist at the Ohio University, explained in a press release:
Atoms can be routinely imaged with scanning probe microscopes, but without X-rays one cannot tell what they are made of,
We can now detect exactly the type of a particular atom, one atom-at-a-time, and can simultaneously measure its chemical state,
Once we are able to do that, we can trace the materials down to the ultimate limit of just one atom.
The amazing thing is that despite how hard it is to X-ray a single atom, the researchers in question managed to overcome all difficulties. Previously, it was possible only to X-ray groups of at least 10,000 atoms. However, that means a very small portion of the usual matter. To give yourself an idea of just how little 10,000 atoms grouped together mean, you can keep in mind that only at the tip of a pencil, there are roughly 30,000,000 atom sheets.
To come to their achievement, scientists employed a cutting-edge methodology known as synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopy, or SX-STM, for short. In essence, SX-STM merges the power of X-ray imaging with a specially designed microscope that can capture detailed images of atomic surfaces. This is achieved by utilizing an exquisitely delicate conducting tip, which exploits the phenomenon of electron tunneling when stimulated by the X-rays.
The new study was published in Nature.