Control Engineers of the Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, in collaboration with colleagues from the Jülich Research Center, have developed a method for measuring the electrical potentials of molecules and molecular surfaces with previously unattainable precision and speed.
With what is known as Scanning Quantum Dot Microscopy, they have, for the first time, succeeded in creating high resolution maps of molecular electrical potentials, i.e. the electric fields that surround all matter, within just a few minutes.
The work is a part of the cooperation between Magdeburg and Jülich, which examines the targeted and automated manipulation of objects at nano level.
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The research results have just been published in the journalNature Materials.
"All matter consists of positively charged atomic nuclei and negatively charged electrons," explains Prof. Rolf Findeisen from the Institute of Automation Technology at the University of Magdeburg. "These generate electrical potentials. Using conventional methods, until now it has been barely possible to measure these very weak fields, which are responsible for many of the characteristics and functionalities of materials."
With the newly developed Scanning Quantum Dot Microscopy, a single molecule, known as a quantum dot, is mounted on the tip of the needle of a scanning force microscope. This tip travels, like the needle of a record player, over the sample with the molecule at temperatures close to absolute zero and thus, step by step creates a coherent representation of the surface.
Together with his doctoral student, Michael Maiworm, Findeisen developed a controller for the innovative microscope method – an algorithm that controls the scanning process. This makes the accurate, but until now extremely long-winded measurement of potentials at molecular resolution possible in just a few minutes. "With the new controller we can now easily scan the entire surface of a molecule, as with a normal scanning force microscope," says Christian Wagner from the Jülich Research Center. "This enables us to produce high-resolution images of the potential, which previously appeared unattainable."
"There are many possible uses for this new, unusually precise and fast microscopy technique," continues Michael Maiworm, who largely developed the controller as part of his dissertation supervised by Findeisen. "They range from fundamental physical questions to semiconductor electronics - where even a single atom can be critical for functionality - and molecular chemical reactors to the characterization of biomolecules such as our DNA or biological surfaces."
The work is a part of the cooperation between Magdeburg and Jülich, which examines the targeted and automated manipulation of objects at nano level. In this connection the molecular tip has a dual function: it is simultaneously both a measuring probe and a tool. This opens up the possibility of, in future, being able to create nanostructures via 3D printing. It is conceivable, for example, that it might be possible to produce electrical circuits consisting of individual molecules or sensors of molecular dimension and resolution.