Scientist at work: To take atomic-scale pictures of tiny crystals, use a huge, kilometer-long synchrotron

It’s 4 a.m., and I’ve been up for about 20 hours straight. A loud alarm is blaring, accompanied by red strobe lights flashing. A stern voice announces, “Searching station B. Exit immediately.” It feels like an emergency, but it’s not. In fact, the alarm has already gone off 60 or 70 times today. It is a warning, letting everyone in the vicinity know I’m about to blast a high-powered X-ray beam into a small room full of electronic equipment and plumes of vaporizing liquid nitrogen.

In the center of this room, which is called station B, I have placed a crystal no thicker than a human hair on the tip of a tiny glass fiber. I have prepared dozens of these crystals, and am attempting to analyze all of them.

The author and her colleagues preparing crystalline samples to take to the synchrotron, in hopes of determining their atomic-level structures. Courtesy of Kerry Rippy, CC BY-ND
These crystals are made of organic semiconducting materials, which are used to make computer chips, LED lights, smartphone screens and solar panels. I want to find out precisely where each atom inside the crystals is located, how densely packed they are and how they interact with each other. This information will help me predict how well electricity will flow through them.

To see these atoms and determine their structure, I need the help of a synchrotron, which is a massive scientific instrument containing a kilometer-long loop of electrons zooming around at near the speed of light. I also need a microscope, a gyroscope, liquid nitrogen, a bit of luck, a gifted colleague and a tricycle.

Getting the crystal in place

The first step of this experiment involves placing the super-tiny crystals on the tip of the glass fiber. I use a needle to scrape a pile of them together onto a glass slide and put them under a microscope. The crystals are beautiful – colorful and faceted like little gemstones. I often find myself transfixed, staring with sleep-deprived eyes into the microscope, and refocusing my gaze before painstakingly coaxing one onto the tip of a glass fiber.

Once I’ve gotten the crystal attached to the fiber, I begin the often frustrating task of centering the crystal on the tip of a gyroscope inside station B. This device will spin the crystal around, slowly and continuously, allowing me to get X-ray images of it from all sides.

On the left is the gyroscope, designed to rotate the crystal through a series of different angles as the X-ray beam hits it. Behind it is the detector panel which records the diffraction spots. On the right is a zoomed in picture of a single crystal, mounted on a glass fiber attached to the tip of the gyroscope. Kerry Rippy, CC BY-ND
As it spins, liquid nitrogen vapor is used to cool it down: Even at room temperature, atoms vibrate back and forth, making it hard to get clear images of them. Cooling the crystal to minus 196 degrees Celsius, the temperature of liquid nitrogen, makes the atoms stop moving so much.

X-ray photography

Once I have the crystal centered and cooled, I close off station B, and from a computer control hub outside of it, blast the sample with X-rays. The resulting image, called a diffraction pattern, is displayed as bright spots on an orange background.

This is a diffraction pattern that results when you shoot an X-ray beam at a single crystal. Kerry Rippy, CC BY-ND
What I am doing is not very different from taking photographs with a camera and a flash. I’m about to send light rays at an object and record how the light bounces off it. But I can’t use visible light to photograph atoms – they’re too small, and the wavelengths of light in the visible part of the spectrum are too big. X-rays have shorter wavelengths, so they will diffract, or bounce off atoms.