Scientists at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry used one of the world’s most powerful electron microscopes to map the precise location and chemical type of 23,000 atoms in an extremely small particle made of iron and platinum. Insights gained from the particle’s structure could lead to new ways to improve its magnetic performance for use in high-density, next-generation hard drives.
The 3-D reconstruction reveals the arrangement of atoms in unprecedented detail, enabling the scientists to measure chemical order and disorder in individual grains, which sheds light on the material’s properties at the single-atom level. Insights gained from the particle’s structure could lead to new ways to improve its magnetic performance for use in high-density, next-generation hard drives.
What’s more, the technique used to create the reconstruction, atomic electron tomography (which is like an incredibly high-resolution CT scan), lays the foundation for precisely mapping the atomic composition of other useful nanoparticles. This could reveal how to optimize the particles for more efficient catalysts, stronger materials, and disease-detecting fluorescent tags.
Atoms are the building blocks of matter, and the patterns in which they’re arranged dictate a material’s properties. These patterns can also be exploited to greatly improve a material’s function, which is why scientists are eager to determine the 3-D structure of nanoparticles at the smallest scale possible.
“Our research is a big step in this direction. We can now take a snapshot that shows the positions of all the atoms in a nanoparticle at a specific point in its growth. This will help us learn how nanoparticles grow atom by atom, and it sets the stage for a materials-design approach starting from the smallest building blocks,” says Mary Scott, who conducted the research while she was a Foundry user, and who is now a staff scientist. Scott and fellow Foundry scientists Peter Ercius and Colin Ophus developed the method in close collaboration with Jianwei Miao, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy.
Their nanoparticle reconstruction builds on an achievement they reported last year in which they measured the coordinates of more than 3,000 atoms in a tungsten needle to a precision of 19 trillionths of a meter (19 picometers), which is many times smaller than a hydrogen atom. Now, they’ve taken the same precision, added the ability to distinguish different elements, and scaled up the reconstruction to include tens of thousands of atoms.
Importantly, their method maps the position of each atom in a single, unique nanoparticle. In contrast, X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy plot the average position of atoms from many identical samples. These methods make assumptions about the arrangement of atoms, which isn’t a good fit for nanoparticles because no two are alike.
“We need to determine the location and type of each atom to truly understand how a nanoparticle functions at the atomic scale,” says Ercius.
The scientists’ latest accomplishment hinged on the use of one of the highest-resolution transmission electron microscopes in the world, called TEAM I. It’s located at the National Center for Electron Microscopy, which is a Molecular Foundry facility. The microscope scans a sample with a focused beam of electrons, and then measures how the electrons interact with the atoms in the sample. It also has a piezo-controlled stage that positions samples with unmatched stability and position-control accuracy.
The researchers began growing an iron-platinum nanoparticle from its constituent elements, and then stopped the particle’s growth before it was fully formed. They placed the “partially baked” particle in the TEAM I stage, obtained a 2-D projection of its atomic structure, rotated it a few degrees, obtained another projection, and so on. Each 2-D projection provides a little more information about the full 3-D structure of the nanoparticle.
They sent the projections to Miao at UCLA, who used a sophisticated computer algorithm to convert the 2-D projections into a 3-D reconstruction of the particle. The individual atomic coordinates and chemical types were then traced from the 3-D density based on the knowledge that iron atoms are lighter than platinum atoms. The resulting atomic structure contains 6,569 iron atoms and 16,627 platinum atoms, with each atom’s coordinates precisely plotted to less than the width of a hydrogen atom.
Perfect crystals are rare in nature. Real materials often contain crystal defects and chemical order/disorder such as grain boundaries, dislocations, interfaces, surface reconstructions and point defects. Such disruption in periodicity strongly affects material properties and functionality. Despite rapid development of quantitative material characterization methods correlating three-dimensional (3D) atomic arrangements of chemical order/disorder and crystal defects with material properties remains a challenge. On a parallel front, quantum mechanics calculations such as density functional theory (DFT) have progressed from the modelling of ideal bulk systems to modelling ‘real’ materials with dopants, dislocations, grain boundaries and interfaces but these calculations rely heavily on average atomic models extracted from crystallography. To improve the predictive power of first-principles calculations, there is a pressing need to use atomic coordinates of real systems beyond average crystallographic measurements. Here we determine the 3D coordinates of 6,569 iron and 16,627 platinum atoms in an iron-platinum nanoparticle, and correlate chemical order/disorder and crystal defects with material properties at the single-atom level. We identify rich structural variety with unprecedented 3D detail including atomic composition, grain boundaries, anti-phase boundaries, anti-site point defects and swap defects. We show that the experimentally measured coordinates and chemical species with 22 picometer precision can be used as direct input for DFT calculations of material properties such as atomic spin and orbital magnetic moments and local magnetocrystalline anisotropy. This work combines 3D atomic structure determination of crystal defects with DFT calculations, which is expected to advance our understanding of structure–property relationships at the fundamental level.