The inside of an atom has been photographed for the first time in a groundbreaking experiment that could lead to radical new forms of electronics, and help our understanding of the universe’s most basic building blocks.
Scientists in the Netherlands used a laser and a microscope to look inside a hydrogen particle.
These kind of images have never before been taken because all previous experiments have destroyed the particles they are attempting to capture.
Scientists in Amsterdam were able to see the contents of the atom by using a special lens that magnifies images up to 20,000 times, creating a ‘quantum microscope’.
Instead of having the ability to describe where a particle is, quantum theory provides a description of its whereabouts called a wave function, which is a mathematical way of describing how they behave in both space and time.
Wave functions work like sound waves, except that whereas the mathematical description of a sound wave defines the motion of molecules in air at a particular place, a wave function describes the probability of finding the particle.
Physicists can theoretically predict what a wave function is like, but measuring a wave function is very hard because they are extremely fragile.
Most attempts to directly observe wave functions actually destroy them in a process called collapse.
So to experimentally measure the properties of a wave function requires researchers to reconstruct it from many separate destructive measurements on identically prepared atoms or molecules.
Physicists at AMOLF, a lab of the Netherlands’ Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM) in Amsterdam, demonstrated a new nondestructive approach in a paper published in Physical Review Letters.
Building on a 1981 proposal by three Russian theorists and more recent work that brought that proposal into the realm of possibility, the team first fired two lasers at hydrogen atoms inside a chamber, kicking off electrons at speeds and directions that depended on their underlying wave functions.
A strong electric field inside the chamber guided the electrons to positions on a planar detector that depended on their initial velocities rather than on their initial positions.
So the distribution of electrons striking the detector matched the wave function the electrons had at the moment they left their hydrogen nuclei behind.
The apparatus displays the electron distribution on a phosphorescent screen as light and dark rings, which the team photographed using a high-resolution digital camera.
Team leader Aneta Stodolna said: ‘We are really happy with our results’.
The research was done by physicists at AMOLF, a lab of the Netherlands’ Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter.
Jeff Lundeen, a physicist at the University of Ottawa in Canada said: ‘It’s an interesting experiment, mostly because it’s investigating hydrogen.’Hydrogen makes up three-quarters of the universe.
Mr Lundeen said the team ‘basically developed a new technique’ that could be ‘a very useful tool’ for scientists.
‘A tool that directly magnifies the microscopic state of a quantum particle onto the laboratory scale could, potentially, render some quantum properties directly perceptible.
‘More practically, such a quantum microscope could aid development of atomic and molecular-scale technologies.’
A laser was used on the particles inside the atom multiple times, so their activity could be traced with a powerful microscope.
The hydrogen atom was chosen for the experiment because of its basic structure.
Taking a picture of it is simpler than any other substance. The team has started experimenting on particles of helium.