A team of Harvard chemists made a major breakthrough using some of the smallest particles in the universe. As Science News reports, the researchers have successfully bonded two individual atoms, marking the first time scientists have used specific atoms to create a molecule. Their findings are reported in the journal Science.
Molecules form when two atoms exchange electrons and form a bond. To recreate this process in the lab, scientists usually mix together a bunch of atoms hoping that some will stick together into the compounds they're looking for.
For this recent experiment, the Harvard researchers used optical tweezers, tools that isolate individual particles using lasers, to move the atoms they wanted to bond. They captured a sodium atom in one laser and a cesium atom in another, and cooled both particles to less than one ten-thousandth of a degree above absolute zero. The researchers then positioned the tweezers so that their beams crossed, causing the two atoms to meet. A final laser pulse gave the cesium and sodium atoms the energy they needed to form a single sodium cesium molecule.
Piecing together molecules with this level of precision could change how chemists study the world. Using the optical tweezers, they can see how molecules act in isolation and how two atoms collide under specific sets of circumstances. The new method would also allow them to create molecules with certain quantum properties, which opens the door for developing super-powerful quantum computers down the line.
This latest research is just one way science is demystifying the tiny particles that make up the universe. Earlier this year, a University of Oxford graduate student won a science photography award for his picture of a single atom, which was captured with a conventional camera and is visible to the naked eye.
[h/t Science News]