Science 3 min read

4D Images of Atomic Movement Captured for the First Time

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As kids, we learn that substances can come in different states and that there are processes by which atoms change from one state to the other.

There are three ordinary states that substances on Earth take: solid, liquid, and gas—we’re discounting plasma and other more exotic states of matter. And of course, we can’t bring the dark matter into this discussion. Antimatter ditto!

Ordinary substances can change from one to another state or phase, through phase change processes, such as freezing, melting, and vaporization.

Physics textbooks may need some revision in the section dealing with “nucleation,” because the results of a breakthrough experiment challenge a lot of what we think we know about how materials change phase.

What 4D Images of Atomic Motion Show us?

Using a new imaging technique for the first time, scientists captured the motion of atoms in 4D as they were in the middle of “nucleation,” a critical process in phase change.

During the process of nucleation, atoms and molecules coalesce to form clusters as they transition from one state of matter to another. There are six changes of phase: freezing, melting, vaporization, sublimation, deposition, and condensation.

For example, it’s thanks to nucleation that atoms condense to form clouds, or even rearrange themselves to trigger the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and many other natural processes.

The UCLA-led team, using a new imaging technique called atomic electron tomography, captured 4D images of the movements of atoms: three dimensions of space and one across time as the atoms prepared for phase change during nucleation.

This “never-before-seen view of nucleation … at 4D atomic resolution” is groundbreaking in that it took an intelligent approach to raise the curtain on phase change of matter and contradict the classical theory describing nucleation.

The technique of atomic electron tomography was developed by the research group of Jianwei “John” Miao, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy, using a state-of-the-art electron microscope at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry.

“This is truly a groundbreaking experiment — we not only locate and identify individual atoms with high precision but also monitor their motion in 4D for the first time,” said Miao who is the senior author of the research paper.

The findings surprised researchers because they contradict a lot of what they have learned and taught about the classical theory of nucleation.

While that theory suggests that nuclei are perfectly round, 4D images show that nuclei take irregular shapes. Also, nuclei don’t have a sharp boundary as the classical theory states.

Each nucleus contains atoms that had changed phase, but they get jumbled closer to the surface of the nucleus as they rearrange themselves.

Another wrong hypothesis is that a nucleus can only grow larger once it reaches a specific size, but this process turns out to be more complicated. As they can grow, nuclei can also shrink, divide, and merge, or even completely dissolve.

This is just the start because 4D images of nucleation could also help scientists better understand how matter behaves for the benefit of many fields of research.

“By capturing atomic motion over time, this study opens new avenues for studying a broad range of material, chemical, and biological phenomena. This transformative result required groundbreaking advances in experimentation, data analysis, and modeling, an outcome that demanded the broad expertise of the center’s researchers and their collaborators.”

Read More: Researchers Discover New “Double State” Of Matter

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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