We can directly see the hidden world of atoms thanks to electron microscopes, first developed in the 1930s. Today, electron microscopes, which use beams of electrons to illuminate and magnify a sample, have become even more sophisticated, allowing scientists to take real-world snapshots of materials with a resolution of less than half the diameter of a hydrogen atom.
Now, scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) are pushing the boundaries of electron microscopy even further through a powerful technique called 4D-STEM, a term that stands for “2D raster of 2D diffraction patterns using scanning transmission electron microscopy.”
Their findings, reported in Nature Communications (“Direct measurement of nanostructural change during in situ deformation of a bulk metallic glass”) and Nature Materials (“Diffraction imaging of nanocrystalline structures in organic semiconductor molecular thin films”), show for the first time how 4D-STEM can provide direct insight into the performance of any material – from strong metallic glass to flexible semiconducting films – by pinpointing specific atomic “neighborhoods” that could compromise a material’s performance, or perhaps have the potential to improve it.

Image Credit:  Colin Ophus/Berkeley Lab

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