The positive atomic nuclei and negative electrons of which all matter consists produce electric potential fields that superpose and compensate each other, even over very short distances. Conventional methods do not permit quantitative measurements of these small-area fields, which are responsible for many material properties and functions on the nanoscale. Almost all established methods capable of imaging such potentials are based on the measurement of forces that are caused by electric charges. Yet these forces are difficult to distinguish from other forces that occur on the nanoscale, which prevents quantitative measurements.
Four years ago, however, scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich discovered a method based on a completely different principle. Scanning quantum dot microscopy involves attaching a single organic molecule -- the "quantum dot" -- to the tip of an atomic force microscope. This molecule then serves as a probe. "The molecule is so small that we can attach individual electrons from the tip of the atomic force microscope to the molecule in a controlled manner," explains Dr. Christian Wagner, head of the Controlled Mechanical Manipulation of Molecules group at Jülich's Peter Grünberg Institute (PGI-3).
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The researchers immediately recognized how promising the method was and filed a patent application. However, practical application was still a long way off. "Initially, it was simply a surprising effect that was limited in its applicability. That has all changed now. Not only can we visualize the electric fields of individual atoms and molecules, we can also quantify them precisely," explains Wagner. "This was confirmed by a comparison with theoretical calculations conducted by our collaborators from Luxembourg. In addition, we can image large areas of a sample and thus show a variety of nanostructures at once. And we only need one hour for a detailed image."
The Jülich researchers spent years investigating the method and finally developed a coherent theory....
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