Scientists reveal the first images of atoms swimming in liquid

The camera first captured the movement of single atoms through a liquid.

Using a sandwich of ultra-thin material that is effectively two-dimensional, the scientists trapped and observed platinum atoms “swimming” along a surface under various pressures.

The results will help us better understand how the presence of a liquid changes the behavior of a solid with which it is in contact – which in turn has implications that could lead to the development of new materials and materials.

“Given the widespread industrial and scientific importance of such behavior, it is really surprising that we still have to learn the basics of the behavior of atoms on surfaces in contact with liquids,” explained materials scientist Sarah Hay, from the University of Manchester in the UK. .

“One of the reasons for the loss of information is the lack of technologies capable of producing experimental data for solid-liquid interfaces.”

When a solid and a liquid come into contact with each other, the behavior of both substances is modified where they meet. These interactions are important for understanding a wide range of processes and applications, such as the transport of substances within our bodies or the movement of ions within batteries.

As the researchers note, it is very difficult to see the world at the atomic level. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM), which uses a beam of electrons to create an image, is one of the few technologies available.

However, obtaining reliable data on the behavior of atoms in this way has been difficult. Previous work in liquid graphene cells was promising, but yielded inconsistent results. In addition, TEM usually requires a high vacuum environment for operation. This is a problem because many materials do not behave the same way under different pressure conditions.

Fortunately, a form of TEM has been developed to work in liquid and gaseous environments, which is what the team employed for their research.

The next step was to create a special set of microscopic “slides” to contain the atoms. Graphene is the ideal material for these experiments, because it is two-dimensional, strong, inert and impermeable. Building on previous work, the team developed a dual graphene liquid cell capable of working with existing TEM technology.

This cell was filled with a finely tuned saltwater solution containing platinum atoms, which the team observed was moving across a solid surface of molybdenum disulfide.

The photos revealed some great ideas. For example, the atoms in the liquid moved faster than outside it, choosing different places on the solid surface to rest.

In addition, the results inside and outside the vacuum chamber were different, indicating that differences in the pressure of the environment can affect how the atoms behave. Moreover, the results of experiments obtained in vacuum chambers will not necessarily be indicative of this behavior in the real world.

“In our work we show that misinformation is provided if atomic behavior is studied in a vacuum rather than using liquid cells,” said materials engineer Nick Clark of the University of Manchester.

“This is a significant achievement and is only the beginning – we are already looking to use this technology to support the development of materials for sustainable chemical processing, needed to achieve the world’s net-zero ambitions.”

The researchers said the materials the team studied are relevant to green hydrogen production, but that their techniques and the results they obtained have much broader implications.

The paper was published in temper nature.

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