More than a century ago, the development of the earliest motion picture technology made what had been previously thought “magical” a reality: capturing and recreating the movement and dynamism of the world around us. A breakthrough technology based on new concepts has now accomplished a similar feat, but on an atomic scale–by allowing, for the first time, the real-time, real-space visualization of fleeting changes in the structure and shape of matter barely a billionth of a meter in size.
Such “movies” of atomic changes in materials of gold and graphite, obtained using the technique, are featured in a paper appearing in the November 21 issue of the journal Science. A patent on the conceptual framework of this approach was granted to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 2006.
The new technique, dubbed four-dimensional (4D) electron microscopy, was developed in the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology, directed by Ahmed Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at Caltech, and winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize for pioneering the science of femtochemistry, the use of ultrashort laser flashes to observe fundamental chemical reactions–atoms uniting into molecules, then breaking apart back into atoms–occurring at the timescale of the femtosecond, or one millionth of a billionth of a second. The work “captured atoms and molecules in motion,” Zewail says, akin to the freeze-frame stills snapped by 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge of a galloping horse (which proved for the first time that a horse does indeed lift all four hooves off the ground as it gallops) and other moving objects.