World first: Images of atoms moving in a molecule
Scientists recorded the first real-time image, which is a feat that captured movement lasting less than one millionth of a billionth of a second.
Wed, Mar 07, 2012 at 01:20 PM
ATOMS: The exploit entailed directing an ultra-fast laser onto molecules of nitrogen and of oxygen. Its pulse of light knocked a single electron out of its orbit around one of the atoms. (Photo: AFP)
Scientists on Wednesday said they had recorded the first real-time images of atoms moving in a molecule, a feat that captured movement lasting less than one millionth of a billionth of a second.
The exploit entailed directing an ultra-fast laser onto molecules of nitrogen and of oxygen. Its pulse of light knocked a single electron out of its orbit around one of the atoms.
The electron tumbled back onto the molecule, causing a tiny collision that, like ripples in a pond, proved a "backlight" of energy. Sensors picked up a movement of joined atoms vibrating.
The research, published in the journal Nature, was headed by Louis DiMauro, a professor of physics of Ohio State University.
The molecules that were studied are very simple — oxygen and nitrogen make up most of the atmosphere — but the hope is to progress to imaging of more interesting fare.
Drug designers could be among the beneficiaries.
"You could use this to study individual atoms," DiMauro said in a press release.
"But the greater impact to science will come when we can study reactions between more complex molecules. Looking at two atoms — that's a long way from studying a more interesting molecule like a protein."
In a separate technical breakthrough, also reported in Nature, physicists at CERN used microwaves to manipulate "antimatter" atoms, once a staple of sci-fi but now one of the big frontiers of particle research.
In theory, there should be equal amounts of matter and its opposite, known as anti-matter, as a result of the Big Bang that created the cosmos.
But clearly there is not, otherwise the physical Universe would not exist.
When a matter atom meets an anti-matter atom, they cancel each other out in a burst of energy. So, for some reason, there is a far greater abundance of matter than anti-matter.
Scientists poring over this mystery have laboured to find out more about elusive anti-matter atoms.
In recent years, they have isolated anti-atoms and then stored them — but handling them is a fiendishly hard task, given the risk of destroying them through mere contact.
The latest achievement, led by the so-called ALPHA team at CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, entailed confining antihydrogen atoms in a magnetic trap and bombarding them with microwaves.
The energy kick forced the atoms out of the trap, providing some vital clues about their properties — an "anti-atomic fingerprint," in the scientists' words.
Copyright 2012 AFP Global Edition