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September 9th, 2009
Microscopes zoom in on molecules at last
Leo Gross and his colleagues at IBM in Zurich, Switzerland, modified the AFM technique to make the most detailed image yet of pentacene, an organic molecule consisting of five benzene rings (see picture).
The molecule is very fragile, but the researchers were able to capture the details of the hexagonal carbon rings and deduce the positions of the surrounding hydrogen atoms.
One key breakthrough was finding a way to stop the microscope's tip from sticking to the fragile pentacene molecule because of attraction due to electrostatic and van der Waals forces - van der Waals is a weak force that operates only at an intermolecular level.
The team achieved this by fixing a single carbon monoxide molecule to the end of the probe so that only one atom of relatively inactive oxygen came into contact with the pentacene.
Although van der Waals force attracted the tip to its target, a quantum-mechanical effect called the Pauli exclusion principle pushed back. This happens because electrons in the same quantum state cannot approach each other too closely. As the electrons around the pentacene and carbon monoxide molecules are in the same state, a small repulsive force operates between them.
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