A team of scientists may be able to improve the way thin-film electronic components are manufactured, after observing atoms with an optical microscope.
The group from Cornell University watched how atoms arrange themselves and crystallised into thin films, discovering that the random darting motion of particles is a key factor as to whether the crystals form neat layers or uneven mounds.
Mark Buckley, a graduate student on the team, described how the particles in the atoms are "big and slow enough" for them to observe changes in real time.
Bumps and defects can be problematic for semiconductors in electronic devices, so progress in this field could be useful.
Leader of the project Itai Cohen remarked: "If the principles we have uncovered can be applied to the atomic scale, scientists will be able to better control the growth of thin films used to manufacture electronic components."
A recent study at the University of Illinois showed that three-dimensional, single-crystalline structures can be constructed from thin films by driving movement through capillary interactions and photolithography.