A single atom has been X-rayed for the first time in a breakthrough that scientists believe will "transform the world" as it paves the way for finding cures for major life-threatening diseases.
Atoms are the smallest part of a substance that cannot be broken down chemically, and there are as many in a golf ball as golf balls would fit into Earth.
Experts can now identify their ingredients – to an infinitesimal degree. The feat has been described as the 'holy grail' of physics.
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Lead author Professor Saw Wai Hla, of Ohio University in the US, said: "Atoms can be routinely imaged with scanning probe microscopes – but without X-rays one cannot tell what they are made of.
"We can now detect exactly the type of a particular atom, one atom-at-a-time, and can simultaneously measure its chemical state.
"Once we are able to do that, we can trace the materials down to ultimate limit of just one atom.
"This will have a great impact on environmental and medical sciences and maybe even find a cure that can have a huge impact for humankind. This discovery will transform the world."
Atoms are the basic building blocks for all matter in the universe. Most last forever.
Since its discovery by Roentgen in 1895, X-rays have been used everywhere, from medical examinations to security screenings in airports.
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An important usage of X-rays in science is to identify the type of materials in a sample. Over the years, the quantity of materials in a sample required for X-ray detection has been greatly reduced thanks to the development of synchrotron X-rays sources and new instruments.
Current state-of-the-art synchrotron scanners can X-ray an attogram – about 10,000 atoms or more. The signal produced by an atom is so weak so conventional detectors cannot be used.
The feat, reported in the journal Nature, has been a long-standing dream, said Prof Hla.
It was achieved thanks to a purpose-built synchrotron instrument at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
The technique known as SX-STM (synchrotron X-ray scanning tunneling microscopy) collected excited electrons – particles on the outside of an atom that move around protons and neutrons.
The spectrums are like fingerprints – each one being unique enabling detection of exactly what it is.
The US team's other key goal was to investigate the environmental effect on a single rare-earth atom.
Prof Hla said: "We have detected the chemical states of individual atoms as well."
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