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"Mini-Cam" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Using an atomic force microscope, UC-Berkeley scientists have taken the first ever atom-by-atom pictures clearly depicting how a molecule's structure changed during a reaction.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Sight unseen

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

A chance to capture an actual picture of a molecular structure before and after a chemical reaction--a photo-op of which scientists could only dream. Oh, sure, they've got ways to infer what's going on, but to get an actual snapshot--that's something that couldn't be done, until now.

Chemists and physicists at the University of California, Berkeley have taken "caught on camera" to an atomic scale. Their technique gives us the first real images of how a molecule's structure is changed, atom-by-atom during a chemical reaction--all the way down to the bonds that link the atoms.

A scanning tunneling microscope is used to find an area for an atomic force microscope to zero in.

(Sound effect: kids in playground) If you've ever tried getting a group of preschoolers to stand still for a picture, you have some idea how hard it is to get jiggling molecules to chill long enough for a shot. So chill that is what the researchers did. They dropped their temperature to about 454 degrees below zero, then warmed them and chilled them again after they did their thing sort of "before and after" molecular mugshots.

The images will help chemists develop new surface chemistry, with possible applications in the chemical and oil industries, and design of electronic devices, including next generation computers.

Look out molecules, (Sound effect: cameras multiple high speed shutters) here come the paparazzi.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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