Contrary to conventional wisdom, technologys advance into the vanishingly small realm of molecules and atoms may not be out of sight for the venerable optical microscope, after all. In fact, research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) suggests that a hybrid version of the optical microscope might be able to image and measure features smaller than 10 nanometers--a tiny fraction of the wavelength of visible light.
A new optical imaging technology under development at NIST will use combinations of dynamically controlled light waves, optimized for particular properties (such as polarization). How this structured illumination field -- engineered specifically to highlight the particular geometry of each type of specimen -- scatters after striking the target may reveal features smaller than 10 nanometers.
Resembling a 3-D checkerboard, this mirage-like pattern was formed by light waves after bouncing off a specimen with a peak-and-valley arrangement of etched lines. Such complicated wave patterns, the result of light scattering and interference effects, may be used to discern the dimensions of nanoscale features.
In a preliminary test of the embryonic technique, NIST scientists used violet light with a wavelength of 436 nanometers to image features as small as 40 nanometers, about five times smaller than possible with a conventional optical microscope.
Roughly speaking, such a feat is akin to picking up a solitary dime with a clumsy front-end loader. If successfully developed, the imaging technology could be readily incorporated into chip-making and other commercial-scale processes for making parts and products with nanometer-scale dimensions.
Mark Bello | EurekAlert!
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