Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

NSF Press Release


Embargoed until 2 P.M. EDT
NSF PR 99-51 - September 1, 1999

Media contact:

 Amber Jones

 (703) 292-8070

Program contact:

 Liselotte Schioler

 (703) 306-1836

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Breakthrough Image of Atomic Bonding Will Advance the Science of New Materials

Image - Atomic bonding
Photo Credit: courtesy of Arizona State University

The image is available at:

 Note About Images

Researchers funded by the National Science Foundation have produced the first experimental image of atomic bonding in copper oxide. Atomic bonds, or molecular orbitals, are the "glue" that holds atoms together and give materials most of their properties. The image produced by scientists at Arizona State University, to be published this week in the journal Nature, provides a direct experimental mapping of the molecular orbitals that connect atoms in a solid material, which has never before been seen.

The image reveals covalent bonds between atomic nuclei in copper oxide, or cuprite, a ceramic semiconducting material. It resolves a long-standing controversy about whether cuprite contains covalent as well as ionic bonds, and shows that covalent bonds exist not just between oxygen and copper atoms, but also between pairs of copper atoms. Molecular orbitals are produced by atomic nuclei sharing or competing for electrons. In covalent bonds, atomic nuclei share electrons, increasing a material's ability to conduct electricity. In ionic bonds, nuclei compete for electrons, producing insulators, or poor conductors.

"The evidence of covalent bonding between metals is likely to make them rewrite the chemistry textbooks," said Arizona State University researcher John Spence, who teamed with Jian-Min Zuo, Miyoung Kim, and Michael O'Keefe to synthesize the image from measurements of electron and X-ray scattering. "Chemistry has always assumed that these are only possible between copper and oxygen in this material."

In addition, Spence noted, the measurements are accurate enough to test the latest theories that predict the properties of new materials when they involve atoms containing many electrons.

Spence and his colleagues expect to see similar orbitals in high-temperature superconducting and colossal magnetoresistance materials. Scientists have long known that some metals are superconductors, which means they lose all resistance to electricity at temperatures approaching absolute zero. However, in 1986, scientists discovered that ceramic oxides such as cuprates could reach this state at higher temperatures, which are easier to achieve and maintain. Still, scientists needed a better understanding of the atomic bonds to understand the functional and mechanical properties of superconducting materials.

Colossal magnetoresistance materials are those in which the electrical conductivity can be changed dramatically by the application of a magnetic field. Potential applications for some of these materials include magnetic media for computer disks, a new type of dynamic memory for computers, and magnetic sensors that are useful in medicine, environmental surveillance, and mine detection.




National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic