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Atomic level microscope

Atomic-level microscopes will allow scientists to unlock the deeper mysteries of the natural world

Scientists are a step closer to creating powerful atomic-level imaging to “uncover the mysteries of nature” thanks to new research into exotic metamaterials.

Physicists at Loughborough University are making great strides towards creating the next generation of scanning tunnelling microscopes (STM) through studying Weyl semimetals – topological materials identified in 2015 as having novel properties, such allowing electrons to move freely without resistance.

Due to the infancy of the Weyl semimetal discovery, made in 2015 at Princeton University, USA, little research has been done to identify their suitability for real world applications.

However, last month, Professor Feo Kusmartsev, Dr Romilly Hills and Dr Anna Kusmartseva took the first step and published a paper outlining a series of newly observed Weyl characteristics, and theoretically investigated a range of scientific devices which could be built using the semimetals.

Their proposals included the design of a new microscope ‘super lens’ capable of high precision imaging down to an atom’s width – one Ångström, or 0.1 nanometers.

A strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter.

Prof Kusmartsev said the race was now on to make the ‘negative refraction super lens’.

“The next step is absolutely clear.” He said. “We have to make the two and three layered structures we have described.

“First, to demonstrate the negative refraction effect.

“Then, to use each of these three-layered structures as the tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope and find which of them is most optimal for imaging.

“The improving the imaging technique to uncover many mysteries of nature – for example, learning more about hydrogen bonding would shed light on many issues, in particular how a life formed on Earth and how the fission of biological cells happens."

At present, scientists can only image crystals or their atomic structure, for example a series of spots identified as atoms, but it is not yet possible to see the structure of individual molecules and atoms.

“We cannot see chemical bonds," said Prof Kusmartsev. "Or how these bonds form, or the molecules, or any structure.

“The new negative refraction super lens will provide a really strong breakthrough in this research.”

Scientists and engineers are available to advance current technology using Weyl materials due to the way the electrons within the semimetals behave.

They contain electrons with no mass – the same as light particles (photons).

Without mass, electrons can move across large spaces without resistance.

They also come with other added benefits – which are extra charge and a negative refractive index.

Negative refraction allows much greater focusing because it does not scatter light in the same way as a normal (positive) refraction lens.

ENDS

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 17/95

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Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines. It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world to study sports-related subjects in the 2017 QS World University Rankings and top in the country for its student experience in the 2016 THE Student Experience Survey.

Loughborough was ranked 6th in the Guardian University League Table 2018 and 10th in The UK Complete University Guide 2018 and was also named Sports University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2017. It has been awarded a Gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework, which recognises institutions that deliver consistently outstanding teaching that is of the highest quality found in the UK.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.

 

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