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Atoms: Seeing 3D Maps of All Atoms in Structure--Aircraft Integrity and More

Sep 23, 2015 02:20 PM EDT
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Atoms mapped
Physicists at UCLA recently were able to use a powerful microscope and repeated tries to map atoms within a structure. This will help ensure the strength of aircraft and other built items.
(Photo : Mary Scott and Jianwei (John) Miao/UCLA)

Physicists at UCLA recently mapped three-dimensional images of atoms, the tiny building blocks of everything on Earth. They used a powerful microscope, creating this visual imaging to 19 trillionths of a meter. This is a good deal smaller than a hydrogen atom, according to this release.

Basically, having all this in physical, 3D form will provide information on the properties of materials based on their atom structure. This will likely help scientists and engineers to build components for aircrafts or other things that really need to be sturdy and solid, for instance, as the release said.

The team's work, led by Jianwei (John) Miao of UCLA, was recently published in the online edition of the journal Nature Materials.

Until now, for the past 100 or so years, scientists used something called X-ray crystallography to measure light waves fracturing and scattering off a crystal--learning from this how atoms are arranged in 3D. But that method only gives average positions of the billions of atoms comprised in a crystal. It doesn't tell the precise coordinates of individual atoms, the release noted.

"It's like taking an average of people on Earth," Miao said in the release. "Most people have a head, two eyes, a nose and two ears. But an image of the average person will still look different from you and me."

Having an accurate idea of where individual atoms are within a structure will help to ensure the strength of those structures and eliminate "point defects," or areas at which atoms are not closely aligned with others, Miao noted in the release. "I think this work will create a paradigm shift in how materials are characterized in the 21st century," he said. "Point defects strongly influence a material's properties and are discussed in many physics and materials science textbooks. Our results are the first experimental determination of a point defect inside a material in three dimensions."

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