Advances in the field of electron microscopy have allowed researchers to visualize 3D arrangements of atoms in nanoparticles. Currently, a new method can identify and locate individual atoms in these nanoscale materials, even when they are moving and vibrating.

A team of electron microscopy and catalysis researchers have been working to identify how atoms are arranged in 3D spaces within nanoparticles in chemical processes, combining experimental data with mathematical models.

Before the new development, atoms have been generally understood to be static during observations. However, this appears insufficient in fully understanding their arrangement, affecting the material's characteristics. It led researchers to develop a way to observe the dynamic behavior of these atoms.

The researchers presented their findings in the Nature Communications article "Probing Atom Dynamics of Excited Co-Mo-S Nanocrystals in 3D," published August 18.

Molybdenum Disulfide chips
(Photo: Materialscientist via Wikimedia Commons)

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Finding Individual Atoms, Even in Motion

For their study, the researchers used molybdenum disulfide, a well-known catalytic nanoparticle substance used for various purposes, including flexible electronics, as detailed in a 2012 study in Advanced Materials.

With a good volume of data available for the material, researchers generated 3D atomic-resolved images through the TEAM 0.5 electron at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, known for the highest resolution available in the picometre scale.

Another aspect of the study is the extensive use of mathematical models that provide researchers with insights into identifying individual atoms in nanoparticles, even in motion.

"Until now, determining which atom we are observing has been challenging due to blurring caused by the oscillations of the atoms," explains Stig Helveg in a university press release.

Helveg is one of the study's authors and a professor from the Department of Physics at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).

"However, by factoring in the oscillations, we can more accurately identify, for example, the location of individual sulphur or molybdenum atoms," he added.

Through their new model, the researchers were also able to correct the alterations in nanoparticles caused by oscillations from the energized electrons lighting up under an electron microscopy procedure.

It allows the team to achieve their goal: to observe better and to understand chemical details otherwise obscured by the alterations, examining nanoparticles by the atom.

Adding a Measuring Function

The DTU press release also explains that the researchers hope that other researchers could use the new method in their respective fields. As for Stig Helveg, he would advance studies with the DTU research center he heads, VISION - the Center for Visualizing Catalytic Processes.

The center focuses on making progress in catalysis, the field of study concerned with controlling chemical reaction rates, especially in its potential applications for more sustainable fuel, chemical processing, and energy harnessing and storage.

With the new method for identifying atoms in nanoparticles, VISION is looking into taking a step forward by integrating the atomic-resolved images with measurements of the catalytic properties taken from the nanoparticles.

The DTU center hopes to wield the technology to visualize the atomic structure better within and ultimately use it to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy.


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