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  • Have you ever seen an atom?

  • Seeing as everything is made of them, you have.

  • But have you ever seen one on its own?

  • Over time, microscopes have become more and more powerful, allowing us to see deeper into the world of the ultra-small.

  • Traditional light microscopes can be used to see things like these onion cells and the structures within them as they divide, pulling apart their chromosomes.

  • But scientists have come up with a whole host of clever methods to observe far smaller things.

  • Using beams of electrons instead of light, we can generate detailed images of chromosomes themselves.

  • Recently, groups of scientists around the world are becoming able to see materials at the most fundamental scale: the atomic.

  • One group from the University of California in Los Angeles have been getting up close and personal with nanoparticles of platinum, just a few nanometers across.

  • Each of the tiny dots you can see here are actually individual platinum atoms.

  • But researchers didn't stop at a two-dimensional picture.

  • By imaging over 100 slices of the nanoparticle at different angles then removing the noise with a special filter, they were able to map the location of almost every atom.

  • The information was used to create a three-dimensional reconstruction of the whole particle in unprecedented detail.

  • It may look blurry, but this particle is estimated to contain over 27,000 atoms and so, like flies in a swarm, they appear to merge together.

  • Every so often, though, we see the platinum's atomic structure align, granting us a moment of clarity.

  • This technique is being used to analyse tiny irregularities in the structure of the particle called dislocations.

  • Dislocations are subtle, like the misalignment of the green and red layers of atoms in this particle.

  • But nonetheless, they can significantly change the properties of materials, with effects ranging from a change in the efficiency of LEDs to the strength of metal alloys.

  • Three-dimensional atomic-scale imaging like this is bettering our understanding of the structure of materials on this truly fundamental scale.

Have you ever seen an atom?

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