TVB Tech Alert: First Image of a Molecule Captured

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND: IBM Researchers have captured the first-ever image of a molecule using a very sophisticated type of resonance imaging. The image, of the hydrocarbon pentacene, was captured using an atomic force microscope, clearly revealing the substance’s six, hexagonal rings and its atomic bonds with hydrogen atoms on the perimeter. (Pictured at right.) The molecule measures 1.4 nanometers, roughly a million times smaller than a grain of sand.

“Though not an exact comparison, if you think about how a doctor uses an X-ray to image bones and organs inside the human body, we are using the atomic force microscope to image the atomic structures that are the backbones of individual molecules,” said IBM Researcher Gerhard Meyer, pictured below at the computer keyboard with colleagues Reto Schlitter to his right, and Fabian Mohn, Leo Gross, Nikolaj Moll (standing) in the IBM lab in front of the AFM. “Scanning probe techniques offer amazing potential for prototyping complex functional structures and for tailoring and studying their electronic and chemical properties on the atomic scale.”

The breakthrough came when researchers refined the AFM, which is equipped with a sharp metal tip that measures the force between itself and a sample to create a map of the structure. Previous iterations of the AFM were not precise enough to capture such clear images at the atomic level. The challenge was to sharpen the tip without making it attract or repel the sample. The IBM team succeeded in creating a super-sharp tip on the device using a single carbon molecule that was able to be brought within 0.5 nanometers of the pentacene molecule, which was both imaged and 3D mapped.

Molecular-level imaging has implications for advancing nanotechnology for use in medicine, electronics and integrated circuitry. It will help scientists better understand and manipulate the behavior of some of the “smallest objects known to mankind,” IBM said.
-- Deborah D. McAdams

(Image of the molecule pentacene courtesy of IBM Research in Zurich. Image of researchers by Micheal Lowry, also courtesy of IBM Research in Zurich.)

More from IBM:
August 28, 2009: IBM Scientists First to Image the ‘Anatomy’ of a Molecule
These breakthroughs will open new possibilities for investigating how charge transmits through molecules or molecular networks. Understanding the charge distribution at the atomic scale is essential for building smaller, faster and more energy-efficient computing components than today’s processors and memory devices.