By the turn of the 19th century, most scientists were convinced that the natural world was composed of atoms. [Einstein’s] 1905 paper on Brownian motion, which links the behavior of tiny particles suspended in a liquid to the movement of atoms put the nail in the coffin of the anti-atom crowd. No one could actually see atoms, however. The typical size of a single atom ranges from 30 to 300 picometers. With the wavelength of visible light coming in at a whopping 400 – 700 nanometers, it is simply not possible to “see” an atom. Not possible with visible light, that is. It was the summer of 1982 when Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, two researchers at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory, show to the world the first ever visual image of an atomic structure. They would be awarded the Nobel prize in physics for their invention in 1986.
The Scanning Tunneling Microscope
IBM’s Scanning Tunneling Microscope, or STM for short, uses an atomically sharp needle that passes over the surface of an (electrically conductive) object – the distance between the tip and object being just a few hundred picometers, or the diameter of a large atom.
A small voltage is applied between the needle and the object. Electrons ‘move’ from the object to the needle tip. The needle scans the object, much like a CRT screen is scanned. A current from the object to the needed is measured. The tip of the needle is moved up and down so that this current value does not change, thus allowing the needle to perfectly contour the object as it scans. If one makes a visual image of the current values after the scan is complete, individual atoms become recognizable. Some of this might sound familiar, as we’ve seen a handful of people make electron microscopes from scratch. What we’re going to focus on in this article is how these electrons ‘move’ from the object to the needle. Unless you’re well versed in quantum mechanics, the answer might just leave your jaw in the same position as this image will from a home built STM machine.