Home > Press > Helium atoms may light way for new imaging approach
University of Oregon professor suggests an atom camera
Helium atoms sent by nozzle may light way for new imaging approach
Eugene, OR | Posted on July 26, 2006
A newly devised nozzle fitted with a
pinhole-sized capillary has allowed researchers to distribute helium
atoms with X-ray-like waves on randomly shaped surfaces. The technique
could power the development of a new microscope for nanotechnology,
allowing for a non-invasive, high-resolution approach to studying both
organic and inorganic materials.
All that is needed is a camera-like detector, which is now being
pursued, to quickly capture images that offer nanometer resolution, said
principal investigator Stephen Kevan, a physics professor at the
University of Oregon. If successful, he said, the approach would build
on advances already achieved with emerging X-ray-diffraction techniques.
Reporting in the July 7 issue of Physical Review Letters, Kevan's
four-member team described how they sent continuous beams of helium
atoms and hydrogen molecules precisely onto material with irregular
surfaces and measured the speckle diffraction pattern as the wave-like
atoms scattered from the surface.
The research, funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S.
Department of Education, was the first to capture speckle diffraction
patterns using atomic de Broglie waves. The Nobel Prize in physics went
to France's Louis de Broglie in 1929 for his work on the properties of
"The approach of using the wave nature of atoms goes back 100 years to
the founding of quantum mechanics," Kevan said. "Our goal is to make
atomic de Broglie waves that have very smooth wave fronts, as in the
case in laser light. Usually atom sources do not provide wave fronts
that are aligned coherently, or nice and orderly."
The nozzle used in the experiments is similar to one on a garden hose.
However, it utilizes a micron-sized glass capillary, borrowed from
patch-clamp technology used in neuroscience. The capillary, smaller than
a human hair, provides very small but bright-source atoms that can then
be scattered from a surface. This distribution of scattered atoms is
measured with high resolution using a field ionization detector.
The helium atoms advance with de Broglie wavelengths similar to X-rays,
but are neutral and non-damaging to the surface involved. Kevan's team
was able to measure single-slit diffraction patterns as well as speckle
patterns made on an irregularly shaped object.
Getting a timely image remains the big obstacle, Kevan said. Images of
diffraction patterns produced pixel-by-pixel in the study required hours
to accumulate and suffer from thermal stability limitations of the
equipment. "We'd like to measure the speckle diffraction patterns in
seconds, not a day," he said.
"Given its simplicity, relative low cost, continuous availability, and
the unit probability for helium scattering from surfaces, our source
will be very competitive in some applications," Kevan and colleagues
"This atom optical experiment would benefit from developing an 'atom
camera,' that would measure the entire speckle pattern in one exposure,"
Co-authors of the study with Kevan were doctoral students Forest S.
Patton and Daniel P. Deponte, both of the department of physics at the
University of Oregon, and Greg S. Elliott, a physicist at the University
of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.
Source: Stephen Kevan, professor of physics, 541-346-4742, firstname.lastname@example.org
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