Researchers reach atomic milestone

SLAC scientist says breakthrough could lead to advances in MRIs, quantum computing, electrical grids

Physicists at a Menlo Park research facility recently had a Big Bang moment.

For the first time, researchers at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have been able to take a direct look at electrons orbiting atoms, a feat that gives scientists a new way to study materials and could possibly play a role in unconventional superconductivity methods. And that could lead to advances in a variety of areas, including MRI technology, magnetic levitation systems, quantum computing and bandwidth for wireless communication. It could also possibly allow electrical grids to be expanded with no new infrastructure.

The research was conducted using SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source, an X-ray laser, and supported by additional experiments at Stanford. The research was publicized Thursday morning in the journal Science. SLAC is building a new laser to be completed by the end of 2019 that will fire 8,000 times faster than its predecessor and generate X-ray beams that are 10,000 times brighter.

The study’s leader called the breakthrough “a remarkable technical achievement,” equating it to viewing “motion pictures” of the microscopic world.

“What we have done is take a video of atoms and electrons at a frame rate of 100,000 billion frames per second with a spatial precision of a billionth of a human hair,” said Zhi-Xun Shen, a professor at SLAC and Stanford and investigator with the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences. “The motion pictures made in LA are typically 60 frames per second.”

Shen said the videos showed that physicists’ perception of how electrons and atoms interact — referred to as a “dance” — “was off by a very large amount.” The researchers discovered the dance is 10 times stronger than predicted when employing iron selenide as a material, a feat that could lead to advances in superconductivity uses.

Scientists aren’t looking at videos in the ordinary sense. They string together 100 images among the 100 trillion shot by the laser to get a picture of the electron dance. New breakthroughs could come out of simply watching “movie frames” of additional materials to see how they react at the atomic level.

As example, Shen said the breakthrough could help researchers identify a material that works as a better high-temperature superconductor for MRI machines. It could allow for less radiation risk and cheaper machines and boost academic research into brains.

“Currently, you can barely see the details of the brain,” he said, adding that a better superconductor could provide a detailed view of the neural network.

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Original Author: Kevin Kelly

Original Date: July 6, 2017