First-ever high-res photos of chemical bonds breaking

About this groundbreaking photo from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley:

"Almost as clearly as a textbook diagram, this image made by a noncontact atomic force microscope reveals the positions of individual atoms and bonds, in a molecule having 26 carbon atoms and 14 hydrogen atoms structured as three connected benzene rings."

"Nobody has ever taken direct, single-bond-resolved images of individual molecules, right before and immediately after a complex organic reaction," said Felix Fischer of the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

(via physorg, James McInerney)


  1. Also cool – they got these photos by accident (or unexpected side effect).  But they look exactly as predicted for decades. Science!


  2. Context for any kids reading this: as recently as the 1990’s, we were being told that taking pictures of atoms or molecules was impossible and would always be impossible.

    Science is awesome.

    1. They were right, and remain right if they were talking about doing it with light. You aren’t seeing light being reflected in the above image.

      1. The use of light was implied because that’s what everyone thinks of when taking a picture,  but there was also the insinuation was that we’d never be able to resolve anything at such small scales via any method. 

      2. AFM images like these come from largely photon-mediated (i.e. electromagnetic) interactions, so you could argue that the image is obtained “with light” by a near-field process.  (The case for calling STM an optical spectroscopy would be weaker and more convoluted.)

        There’s a big neatness factor here, but I’m left wondering about the scientific value.  Studying chemistry like this on a specific 2D substrate is much less interesting and general than, say, similar reactions in a 3D aqueous environment.  Also, it’s already well known that molecular structures can be seen by AFM and STM.  (at least for inorganics.  Is carbon a special case?)

        (Disclaimer: I don’t work with organics, and have just read the news release, not the full Science article.)

        1. Saying it was obtained “with light” is equivalent to saying that shooting a laser at the lever of a record player and then interpreting that signal is playing the record “with light”. You aren’t. You are reading the record mechanically and the laser only transmits that data.

          1. No, the photons in my analogy aren’t externally applied, they’re a Fourier transform of E fields near the AFM tip. Yes, my analogy is silly, but the reason is that there’s no good physical motivation for taking the Fourier transform, and I’m ignoring non-EM factors important to short range interatomic interactions. Your analogy would apply equally well to a constant-current STM image, where mine wouldn’t.

          2. Visited the comments expecting pedantic buzzkills and was not disappointed. Good job, folks.

    2. I think people in the 90’s might have said that you cannot measure an electron state using another electron without destroying that state. They are right: you still can’t. But the molecule is stuck down to something, so if the electrons were in a stable state, it will probably leak the extra electron, and go back to an identical state. So the fuzzy image we have here is not a picture of the electron orbitals, but a map of the results of smashing the orbitals up hundreds of thousands of times. It’s Aristotle’s ‘Embryology of the Chick’, where he opened eggs and drew what he found, thereby mapping out the general process by interrupting the particular process. However, we are unlikely to be able to image the chemical bonds in the process of breaking because that won’t be a stable state, so it won’t snap back to the way it was afterwards. Indeed, it is  not clear that we can observe a quantum process half-way through at all. That is something that any kids reading us may eventually be telling us.

      So, the title may need changing a bit, but the image is still made of 99.99% pure awesome.

      I remember seeing the live images of tungsten atoms in a field ion microscope in the seventies. That was a much earlier and cruder technique, so it could only image really stable materials such as tungsten. But you a were looking at the same sort of thing.

  3. I think calling it a photo implies the wrong thing. We aren’t seeing light being reflected from these chemicals. Calling it just an image (like the original article) would be better.

    Why the gripe? A benzene atom has a diameter of about 0.28 nm. Visible light itself has a wavelength of about 400-700 nm. The best optical microscopes can see to about 200 nm (roughly half the wavelength).

  4. I can see the day when students of the future can cheat on their organic chem by using the atomic force microscope app on their phones to look at the molecules that are on the test. 

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