May 11, 2016 I Brett Tingley

3D Holograms Reveal Hidden Molecular Structures

The hidden internal structures of the building blocks of our universe might be closer to becoming known thanks to a recent technological breakthrough. A team of German physicists have discovered a method of bombarding molecules with multiple waves of electrons and then using the resulting data to create full 3D models of internal molecular structures.

The technique works by shooting several rounds of electrons at molecules inside specialized electron microscopes. Specialized sensors then analyze the scattering patterns caused by some electrons being reflected away from the internal structures of the molecules being scanned. The collected data can then be processed into a complete 3-dimensional hologram of the molecule’s internal and external physical structure. The team behind this discovery have published an article describing their technique, called chemical-sensitive holography, in the journal NanoLetters.

pyrite hologram
A representation of the holographic imaging technique from the paper "Direct Atom Imaging by Chemical-Sensitive Holography"

Prior to this breakthrough, methods for imaging molecular structure were problematic due to imaging artifacts resulting from interference. Because some atoms are so minuscule, a single rogue electron being picked up by a sensor has the potential to distort an entire image. This new holographic imaging technique improves the entire process so greatly that it has the potential to revolutionize our knowledge of molecular structures.

Once physicists and chemists fully understand an element’s molecular structure, they can then begin to study the relationship between molecular structures and physical properties. Potential applications and knowledge resulting from this technology could lead to paradigm shifts in materials technology, medicine, and nanotechnologies.

Holographic sound2
Holograms have the potential to revolutionize scientific imaging.

This new technique comes on the heels of other recent developments in holographic imaging, such as a Korean study that found a method for creating 3D images of live cells in real time and a DARPA-funded project to create holographic projections of objects hidden around corners using light-scattering sensors.

While we might not have holographic virtual realities to inhabit any time soon, these developments offer signs that holographic imaging might soon be an integral part of scientific and medical research. Powerful electron imaging continues to reveal knowledge about the hidden nature of our universe, allowing us to begin manipulating our reality in ways previously unthinkable.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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