Researchers Take First-Ever Photographs of Molecules Forming Chemical Bonds


Science nerds and photographers can join hands today and stare in awe at what a team of researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory managed to do. Entirely by accident, these scientists have managed to take the first ever high-res images of carbon atoms in the process of forming chemical bonds.

The team, led by Felix Fischer, were actually trying to create tiny nanostructures made of graphene — basically a one molecule thick layer of the substance graphite that has the potential to revolutionize everything from circuits to touch screens. But creating the right graphene nanostructures is a tough process, so Fischer asked to borrow Berkeley physicist Michael Crommie’s atomic force microscope, which could capture atom-level images of the molecules falling into place.


Although the initial experiment was a bust, the pictures the group got (seen above) are nothing short of astounding. It turns out the people who came up with the drawings in your Chemistry book were right on the money.

The technique they used to capture these stunning images is called Non-Contact Atomic Force Microscopy. The microscope has a single Oxygen atom at the tip of a tiny “needle.” This needle is then run over a sample, moving ever so slightly every time it passes over a molecule or bond. A laser beam is used to determine how much the needle moved, and a picture is formed based on that info.


Just like the needle in a record player interprets different sized ‘bumps’ in the grooves of a record as sound, the different sized ‘bumps’ detected by the microscope are then turned into pictures.

Until now, all of the drawings of molecules we’ve ever seen (or been forced to look at) were educated guesses based on the scientific information at hand. Now, due to photography at the most infinitesimal level, scientists no longer have to guess. It won’t make O-Chem any more interesting, but at least now you’ll be studying something that you’ve seen IRL.

(via Engadget)

  • ian bates

    Shame you refer to the people who draw educational diagrams as ‘jerks’ condidering that you wouldn’t have understood this without those ‘jerks’ and you assume they didn’t know what they were doing when they drew them when clearly they probably did. I guess if they hadn’t been ‘jerks’ they’d have just ended up writing about science instead of being really useful and helping teach it…shame you did pay more attention at school but then I bet you were way to ‘cool’

  • DLCade

    I apologize for causing offense, I certainly didn’t mean to. In fact, I changed that line immediately after publishing the post (you must have seen a cached version of the article) so as not to be misunderstood. Science is actually my second passion (my degree is in Bio Medical Sciences) and I can say from experience that it’s often those most passionate about science that gripe about it the most :)

  • Ivan

    Looking at those images and….. chills down my spine. Fascinating!

  • Khwaja Faraz

    somebody teach these people about diffraction :P

  • 00alexx

    Nice article.

    I just want to point out a few things:

    1. Entirely by accident is a fun way of characterizing this work. It is true that the reaction pathways were unexpected. But the imaging of the molecules was of course done on purpose. Imaging like this has in fact already been demonstrated, but not for a chemical reaction.

    2. There is a single CO molecule on the tip. And its oxygen atom sticks towards the sample.

    3. In this case no laser beam was used, but the sensing of the tip positions is done electrically. The tip is mounted on a piezoelectric quartz tuning fork.

    4. The last paragraph is not correct. This type of imaging already had been performed. Also, other methods of analysis exist that give you the structure of organic molecules (usually not in real space, though). What is new in this work, is that a chemical reaction was tracked.

  • ian bates

    I’m sory also, my sarcasm just demonstrates my own failings, I shouldn’t post without thinking, but nearly 20 years teaching trying to stop students from seeing science as a negative ‘nerdy’ activity, mine was a knee jerk reaction (oops excuse pun). Thank you for your appology. :)