An instrument nearly two stories tall allows UC Irvine researchers to take snapshots of some of the smallest structures known: the inner architecture of individual molecules.
Called a scanning tunneling microscope, the mass of tubes and projections sprouting from a central cylinder takes advantage of the strange properties of the quantum world – the smallest of the small – to capture images of the arrangements of the atoms that form the molecule, as well as the bonds between them. The tunneling is the odd ability of electrons to “tunnel” across the tiny space that separates the tip of the microscope from the surface it is imaging; many such scans produce a picture, line by line, of lights and darks, revealing the molecule and its interior.
Deeper understanding of chemical bonds within molecules could bring astonishing applications – converting the carbon dioxide that is heating the planet, for example, into clean fuel, such as methanol. Or turning pollutants into environmentally harmless substances. Or even unlocking the secrets of genetic mutations that result in disease.