Researchers have for the first time captured atomic-scale images of molecules before and after a chemical reaction--a breakthrough that will help researchers and students better visualize chemistry and could eventually lead to improved electronics.
Traditionally, scientists have to infer how a molecule's structure changes in a reaction. "In chemistry you throw stuff into a flask and something else comes out, but you typically only get very indirect information about what you have," lead researcher Felix Fischer, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of chemistry, says in a press release. "You have to deduce that by taking nuclear magnetic resonance, infrared or ultraviolet spectra. It is more like a puzzle, putting all the information together and then nailing down what the structure likely is. But it is just a shadow. Here we actually have a technique at hand where we can look at it and say this is exactly the molecule. It's like taking a snapshot of it."
While trying to build new graphene nanostructures, Fischer and his colleagues were able to visualize the exact structure of a molecule--right down to the chemical bonds between atoms--and how that structure changes during a reaction.
The key? A technique called "noncontact atomic force microscopy." The ultra-precise carbon molecule tip of a microscope traces the electron bonds between atoms in the molecule, creating an image almost like a leaf rubbing.
Here's a better look:
The implications are both simple ("visualizing chemistry is awesome!") and elaborate: precisely positioned nanostructures of graphene allow for the construction of absurdly small machines. But to place them precisely, they first have to be visualized. "The atomic force microscope gives us new information about the chemical bond, which is incredibly useful for understanding how different molecular structures connect up and how you can convert from one shape into another shape," says Michael Crommie, a UC Berkeley professor of physics. "This should help us to create new engineered nanostructures, such as bonded networks of atoms that have a particular shape and structure for use in electronic devices. This points the way forward."
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Now that is very, very odd. I ask this: what are the chances that a flat, 2-d representation of a chemical bond of a compound should show up exactly at sub- or subatomic level. I thought that the visual nomenclature was just that: a representation invented so that it is easier to visualize relations of the chemical bonds and energies taking place among compounds. I had not thought that an atomic force microscope could be angled so that one would arrive at the images so that one may remark how closely they match. The beam is straight on perpendicular so far it be so lucky that the images are so reminiscent of an invented representation of a chemical bond. Too much of a coincidence. It brings to mind the thought experiment involving Schrodinger's cat. Are we, as observers, affecting how the universe behaves at atomic and quantum levels? Is the conscious observer the center of the universe after all. I'm still dazzled how the more our telescopes become more sensitive, the bigger and farther the edge of the universe seems to be. There's another riddle that comes to mind: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" What if the forest in question was to be found at the farthest planet orbiting the farthest star?
Joelixirs, the chemical structures of molecules have long been studied and predicted through other means. As the article states, the shapes have long been deduced by the other information we were able to collect. It was the observable data that led us to these predicted shapes, design chemical experiments, build the periodic table, etc., so the Schrodinger's cat idea wouldn't really apply.