X-ray Image of a Single Atom

Experts Capture Groundbreaking X-ray Image of a Single Atom

In a monumental scientific achievement, a team of experts has accomplished what was once deemed impossible: capturing a groundbreaking X-ray image of a single atom in its natural state. This remarkable feat pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the atomic world and opens up new possibilities for scientific research and technological advancements.


In an unprecedented breakthrough, a group of scientists led by Saw Wai Hla, Professor of Physics at Ohio University and scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, successfully captured the world’s first X-ray signature of a single atom. The U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, funded this potentially transformative advancement that may redefine how scientists identify materials.

 X-ray Image of a Single Atom

Since Roentgen’s discovery in 1895, X-rays have found widespread applications, ranging from medical diagnostics to space exploration. X-rays have been crucial in identifying material composition in samples. With advancements like synchrotron X-rays sources and cutting-edge instruments, detection has become feasible even at an attogram level – approximately 10,000 atoms. Yet, until now, X-raying a single atom remained an unrealized aspiration, largely due to the extremely weak signal emitted by an atom, making it undetectable by traditional X-ray detectors. This long-standing dream, as Hla expresses, is now becoming a reality.

Atomic Analysis Enhanced

“Imaging atoms is common with scanning probe microscopes, but without X-rays, their composition remains elusive. Our discovery allows us to identify a single atom’s type and simultaneously measure its chemical state,” said Hla, the director of the Nanoscale and Quantum Phenomena Institute at Ohio University. This development has potential significant implications for environmental and medical sciences and may even facilitate groundbreaking cures for humanity.

The Research Behind the X-ray Image of a Single Atom

The research paper, published in Nature on May 31, 2023, detailed the utilization of a custom-built synchrotron X-ray instrument at the Advanced Photon Source and the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory. This innovative approach involved detecting the X-ray signal of an iron and a terbium atom, each embedded in specific molecular hosts.


The Revolutionary Technique: SX-STM

The team combined traditional X-ray detectors with a specialized detector featuring a sharp metal tip placed in close proximity to the sample. This method, known as synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopy (SX-STM), enabled the detection of X-ray excited electrons. The resulting spectrums serve as unique identifiers, akin to fingerprints, which can precisely discern the elemental type of the materials.

Broader Implications and Future Prospects

Tolulope Michael Ajayi, the paper’s first author, underscores the transformative potential of this development, which could catalyze research and engender novel technologies in diverse areas, including quantum information and trace element detection in environmental and medical research. Hla, a veteran in the SX-STM method and instrument development over 12 years, aims to further this technique to investigate the environmental effects on a single rare-earth atom.

Applications in Everyday Technology

The findings could significantly impact the manipulation of atoms inside various materials, affecting industries from mobile phones to televisions. The team also developed a new method, “X-ray excited resonance tunneling or X-ERT,” enabling detection of a single molecule’s orientation on a material surface using synchrotron X-rays.


Onwards and Upwards

Hla’s team, which includes several OHIO graduate students and Professor of Chemistry Eric Masson, intends to continue leveraging X-rays to identify single atom properties and advance their applications for critical materials research and beyond.

Have something to add? Visit Curiosmos on Facebook. Join the discussion in our mobile Telegram group.

Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

Write for us

We’re always looking for new guest authors and we welcome individual bloggers to contribute high-quality guest posts.

Get In Touch