Microscopes are usually used to see things, not to change the things that are being viewed. But that’s just what one group of researchers is proposing to do. In their regular research, they use a specific type of microscope, called a scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM), which allows them to measure the material and electrical structure on a very small scale, down to a single atom (here’s a great visualization of the size of an atom).
Sometimes when a STEM is being used to visualize a material, the microscope unintentionally moves atoms or alters the structure of the material. In a recent opinion article in Nature, these researchers propose that this “accidental” relocation of atoms can be also be achieved on purpose to create structures atom by atom.
Our team at XVIVO Scientific Animation was called upon to help Nature and the researchers convey the science behind this technology, dubbed the “Atomic Forge.” Our goal was to make the resulting illustration accessible and vibrant to diverse audiences. We started with enthusiasm and a lot of helpful input from the researchers and Nature team.
The challenge with the illustration was that the physical structure of the atomic forge doesn’t yet exist. Therefore, we decided to give the illustration enough detail to be believable and impressive, while leaving certain technical aspects of the structure that are hard to forecast at this point, more ambiguous.
Since fabricating new materials is the goal of the machine, we focused the illustration on the site of the beam forging. From there, the illustration loops around to illustrate the feedback system that is critical to building new structures. The layout conveys the cyclical process: the electron beam manipulates the material, the sensor below receives the diffraction pattern from the material, the patterns are sent to the computer to determine how the material was manipulated, and the computer software modifies the beam position accordingly to achieve the desired structure.
While the illustration contains details recognizable to experts, such as a reference to qubits and diffraction patterns, the overall structure of the atomic forge was distilled to be digestible across a wide audience. If the promise of the atomic forge is realized, it could pave the way for quantum computers and a better understanding of material structures.