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Local Tech Wire

RESEARCH TRIANGLED PARK, N.C. – IBM scientists in Switzerland have taken the study of molecules to a new microscopic level, producing the first image of a single molecule’s anatomy, or chemical structure.

The breakthrough could lead to advances in nanotechnology as scientists can further explore molecules and atoms at even smaller levels.

IBM researchers call the technique used to capture the image as noncontact atomic force microscopy, or AFM. The AFM “uses a sharp metal tip to measure the tiny forces between the tip and the sample, such as a molecule, to create an image,” IBM said The researchers used a scanning tunneling/atomic force microscope.

"Though not an exact comparison, if you think about how a doctor uses an x-ray to image bones and organs inside the human body, we are using the atomic force microscope to image the atomic structures that are the backbones of individual molecules," said IBM Researcher Gerhard Meyer. "Scanning probe techniques offer amazing potential for prototyping complex functional structures and for tailoring and studying their electronic and chemical properties on the atomic scale.”

The scientists in the Aug. 28 issue of Science magazine.

IBM scientists Leo Gross, Fabian Mohn, Nikolaj Moll and Gerhard Meyer, working with Peter Liljeroth of Utrecht University, used the AFM to “image” the structure of pentacene molecules. The molecules are organic, including 22 carbon and 14 hydrogen atoms in a length of 1.4 nanometers.

The distance between each atom is 0.14 nanometers, or 1 million times smaller than a grain of sand, according to IBM.

The AFM operated in an extremely high vacuum at temperatures of -451 degrees Fahrenheit.