An ultrafast microscope for the quantum world

Processes taking place inside tiny electronic components or in molecules can now be filmed at a resolution of a few hundred attoseconds and down to the individual atom

January 27, 2020

The operation of components for future computers can now be filmed in HD quality, so to speak. Manish Garg and Klaus Kern, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, have developed a microscope for the extremely fast processes that take place on the quantum scale. This microscope – a sort of HD camera for the quantum world – allows the precise tracking of electron movements down to the individual atom. It should therefore provide useful insights when it comes to developing extremely fast and extremely small electronic components, for example.

Resolution taken to the extreme: Using a combination of ultrashort laser pulses (red) and a scanning tunnelling microscope, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research are filming processes in the quantum world. They focus the laser flashes on the tiny gap between the tip of the microscope and the sample surface, thus solving the tunneling process in which electrons (blue) overcome the gap between the tip and the sample. In this way, they achieve a temporal resolution of several hundred attoseconds when they image quantum processes such as an electronic wave packet (coloured wave) with atomic spatial resolution.

The processes taking place in the quantum world represent a challenge for even the most experienced of physicists. For example, the things taking place inside the increasingly powerful components of computers or smartphones not only happen extremely quickly but also within an ever-smaller space. When it comes to analysing these processes and optimising transistors, for example, videos of the electrons would be of great benefit to physicists. To achieve this, researchers need a high-speed camera that exposes each frame of this “electron video” for just a few hundred attoseconds. An attosecond is a billionth of a billionth of a second; in that time, light can only travel the length of a water molecule. For a number of years, physicists have used laser pulses of a sufficiently short length as an attosecond camera.

In the past, however, an attosecond image delivered only a snapshot of an electron against what was essentially a blurred background. Now, thanks to the work of Klaus Kern, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research, and Manish Garg, a scientist in Kern’s Department, researchers can now also identify precisely where the filmed electron is located down to the individual atom.

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