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?