Revolutionary IBM Microscope Technique Yields Resolution 100 Times Smaller Than an Atom

Friday, February 1, 2013


A pioneering team from IBM has published single-molecule images so detailed that the type of atomic bonds between their atoms can be seen in the images. The same team took the first-ever single-molecule image in 2009 and more recently published images of the HBC molecule.
Anyone who took high school chemistry is well familiar with that textbook diagram of a molecule, with atoms bonded by electrons in perfectly ordered formations. Now a team of researchers at IBM has developed a microscope that can actually view individual molecules and bonds with a resolution one hundred times smaller than an atom – down to three trillionths of a meter!

The new images validate decades of theoretical depictions of how atoms and molecules form, with the actual picture of the hydrocarbon the team imaged (hexabenzocoronen, or HBC) almost perfectly matching the hypothetical structure. Never before has the internal structure of molecules been seen with such precision, with observations and confirmations of long-held theories potentially ushering in a new age of nano-engineering.

The same IBM team has had a number of incredible achievements in the world of microscopy in the past several years. In 2009 the team created the first high resolution image of a single molecule, showing the molecular bonds with any clarity for the first time ever. They also managed to measure the exact charge of one atom using a specially designed tuning fork, information that again could be extremely important to manufacturing new computer parts on an incredibly small scale. That technique earlier this year confirmed the theoretical distribution of electrons long described but never able to be verified.

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The molecule the researchers examined, HBC, is particularly interesting because it has implications for understanding graphene sheets and carbon nanotubes, two structures widely hailed as the future of many engineering advancements. HBC itself is a disc-like formation with carbon atoms at its center and hydrogen atoms at the edges; in certain conditions, it has a tendency to arrange itself in large (relatively speaking) columns, which can be very useful for many extremely tiny engineering applications.

The team's work was published in the journal Science last year.

The scale the HBC atom is viewed at can show the precise length of the bonds between atoms. This is important because the more electrons atoms share, the shorter their bond; precisely measuring these bonds enables one to better understand the electrical properties of the atom. In this particular case, it was found that the bonds near the center of the atom shared more electrons than those on the outer edges, meaning more electrons were present.

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As computers have grown in power and shrunk in size, developers have long recognized that eventually the scale will shrink to the microscopic level. The work of IBM, and the speed at which they are making these discoveries, is extremely exciting for not only the computer space, but all aspects of microscopic science and quantum physics.


By Haley GrantonSubscribe to 33rd Square

Author Bio

Hayley is an amateur scientist, author and blogger residing in Portland Oregon. She recommends visiting to purchase a high quality microscope for Clinical, Home, Industrial or Student use. Interested in fun and interesting science projects you can perform at home? Visit

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