Czech scientists become the first in world to see inside an atom

A milestone breakthrough in subatomic research has been reported by an extensive team of Czech researchers in the journal Science.

Jason Pirodsky

Written by Jason Pirodsky Published on 14.11.2021 12:04:00 (updated on 15.11.2021) Reading time: 2 minutes

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An extensive team of scientists and researchers from across the Czech Republic have become the first in the world to observe the subatomic structure inside of an atom. Their breakthrough research has been published in the journal Science.

The achievement, which confirmed a subatomic phenomenon that was theorized three decades prior, has been compared to the observation of a black hole. It opens the door to further development of materials that impact day-to-day life.

Scientists and researchers from the Czech Advanced Technology and Research Institute at Palacký University in Olomouc, the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Institute of Physics at the Czech Academy of Sciences, the IT4Inovations Supercomputing Center at the Technical University of Ostrava all collaborated on the achievement.

The researchers have become the first in the world to directly observe a "sigma-hole," an asymmetric electron density distribution on single atoms of halogen elements. The sigma-hole was theoretically predicted around 30 years ago, but only now definitively confirmed through observation by the Czech team.

“Confirming the existence of the theoretically predicted sigma-holes is not unlike observing black holes, which had never been seen until only two years ago despite being predicted in 1915 by the general theory of relativity," Pavel Jelínek from the Czech Academy of Sciences explains in a press release. 

"Viewed in that sense, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the imaging of the sigma-hole represents a similar milestone at the atomic level,” 

To observe the sigma-hole, the scientists were able to optimize the sensitivity of their Kelvin probe force microscopes, greatly increasing the resolution capabilities for scanning microscopes.

The breakthrough research in the observation of subatomic structures opens the door for future study.

“I’ve studied noncovalent interactions all my life, and it gives me great satisfaction that we can now observe something that previously we could “see” only in theory and that the experimental measurements precisely confirm our theoretical premise of the existence and shape of the sigma-hole," says Pavel Hobza from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

“What we’re seeing is that halogen bonds and noncovalent interactions in general play a dominant role not only in biology but also in materials science. That makes our current paper in Science all the more important.”

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