Cornell University researchers reconstructed the EMPAD’s data with algorithms to capture a high-resolution image of atoms in a praseodymium orthoscandate crystal. (Image Credit: Cornell University)
Cornell University researchers recently captured a high-resolution 3D image of atoms in a praseodymium orthoscandate crystal, zoomed in 100 million times. The feat, achieved through an electron microscope pixel array detector (EMPAD), doubled its world record image resolution set in 2018. Ultimately, this could lead to new material development aimed at designing more powerful computers, phones, longer-lasting batteries, and varying electronics.
The team’s detector uses an algorithm-driven technique called electron ptychography to capture the image. It operates by blasting one beam of a billion electrons per second at the material. The beam barely moves while firing the electrons, allowing it to hit the target at different angles each time. Sometimes the electrons move through the material, and other times they hit atoms, bumping around the sample while exiting.
This technique has the same principle as playing dodgeball in darkness. The dodgeballs act as electrons, while the opposing targets are the atoms. Even though the targets cannot be seen, the team can identify where the “dodgeballs” arrive. The speckle pattern produced by the electrons enables machine-learning algorithms to determine the atoms’ location in the sample and how they’re shaped. Electron ptychography was used in the past to capture images of a material that measured one to a few atoms thick. Now, this breakthrough enables it to obtain several layers measuring ten to hundreds of atoms thick. This approach serves more purpose to materials scientists observing sample properties measuring 30 to 50 nanometers thick. Additionally, scientists can discover impurity atoms in unusual settings, imaging them along with their vibrations. Imaging could be applied to semiconductors, catalysts, quantum computing material, thick biological cells, and the brain’s synapse connections. Atoms can also be analyzed at the boundaries where materials join.
Although this technique takes time and a lot of computational power, its efficiency could be increased by using more powerful computers, machine learning, and quicker detectors.
These high-resolution imaging techniques are required to develop next-gen electronics. Researchers want to replace silicon-based computer chips with efficient semiconductors. Achieving this requires engineers to understand what they’re dealing with at an atomic level, which is where electron ptychography provides those benefits. However, for electron ptychography to unlock a cell phone or computer breakthrough, it must precisely locate individual atoms in a material.
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