Wait A Femtosecond, I Can See Atoms!

Photo: MSU

Photo: MSU

First, lenses wowed us with a teeming world just too small for our unaided eyes to perceive.

The electron microscope gave us images at the atomic level. We could see the structure of micro organisms, cells, crystals, metals, and more. That was pretty awesome, but those images were static; form without function.

Now, scientists at Michigan State University have created a device that “captures movements of atoms and molecules” according to the university’s online publication MSU Today.

Developed by MSU Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Chong-Yu Ruan, the microscope lets scientists observe the nano world, where material change happens.

Those changes are measured on a femtosecond timescale. Its the unit of time, Ruan explains, that atoms take to perform specific tasks, such as mediating the traffic of electrical charges or participating in chemical reactions.

A femtosecond is one-millionth of a billionth of a second, which is incomprehensible without analogies. A femtosecond is to a second as a second is to about 32 million years, according to MITnews. There are more femtoseconds in a second than there are years that the universe has existed. (That’s 13.8 billion years, if you’re counting).

According to MSU Today, Ruan’s team is one of the few in the world actively developing electron-based imaging technology on the femtosecond timescale.

“Implementing such a technology within an electron microscope setup allows one to examine crucial functions in nanoscale devices,” Ruan told the publication. “The goal is to explore the limits where specific physical, chemical and biological transformations can occur.”

Ruan’s team, which patented the device, imagines offering it as a modular device to be added to existing electron microscopes.
That way, existing electron microscopes, which cost between $1 million and $10 million, can be brought into the future for, perhaps, a mere $500,000 add on, he said.

Ruan cites his innovation’s usefulness in nanoelectronics and clean-energy industries, but can there be limits?

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  • kowalityjesus

    I can imagine a space alien checking a box on a list of progressive scientific achievements of a civilization. Next is commercial thorium breeder reactors, or bust.

  • Rhoid Rager

    Sounds like an expensive attempt to overturn Zeno’s paradox.

    • Simon Valentine

      time is alive and doesn’t always take kindly to poking, prodding, insertion, etc?

      i can just hear time of the future “fuck you ima evolve and shit you’re all just little illusory pieces of my body so hold on watch this”. that’s all we need. time trying to play cowboy & get laid. hypothesis are the adipose of time. something tells me it’s not so much an astonishingly curvular woman.

  • emperorreagan

    I always liked playing with the electron microscopes.

    I wish they had something like this when I had regular access to one, I’d definitely be looking to capture something that I could put porn music over and load to youtube.

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