Scientists Create Clear Image of Tiny Molecule

Scientists used a probe tipped with a carbon monoxide molecule (red) to measure forces across a pentacene molecule. The colored surface represents the force measurements; and the model below shows the position of the atoms within pentacene. (Image credit: IBM Research - Zurich.)

A new imaging technique has brought into focus the anatomy of a hydrocarbon molecule, revealing its tiny atoms and their bonds.

The molecule, called pentacene, is made up of five ring-like structures composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

"We can see all the atoms within the molecule," lead researcher Leo Gross of IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory in Switzerland told LiveScience. "We can even see the carbon-hydrogen bonds and deduce the position of the hydrogen atoms. These are very hard to image, because they are so small."

(Each atom is about a million times smaller than a grain of sand.)

Until now, images of such molecules have been relatively blurry. In the Aug. 28 issue of the journal Science, Gross and his colleagues report the key to cutting through this blur is the probe tip of a so-called atomic force microscope.

The microscope uses a sharp-tipped probe that scans a molecule line-by-line, measuring changes in force between the tip and a spot on the molecule. Traditional metal tips, however, actually stick to the molecule they are scanning. So Gross's team used a carbon monoxide tip, which can get extremely close to the molecule (much less than a hair-width distance) without attaching to it.

The result is roughly a three-dimensional map of pentacene.

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Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.