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X-rays provide nano views

An image made with a lens-less X-ray microscope that sees at the nanoscale reveals magnetic domains that appear like the repeating swirls of fingerprint ridges. As the spaces between the domains get smaller, computer engineers can store more data.
An image made with a lens-less X-ray microscope that sees at the nanoscale reveals magnetic domains that appear like the repeating swirls of fingerprint ridges. As the spaces between the domains get smaller, computer engineers can store more data.University of California San Diego

A new lens-less microscope that harnesses X-rays is able to see details at the scale of a single nanometer and could help usher in an era of smaller computer hard disks that hold more memory, researchers report in a new study.

The technique is also scalable, and as X-ray sources are improved, the technique should allow researchers to resolve down to the subatomic scale, Oleg Shpyrko, an assistant professor of physics at the University of California at San Diego, told me today.

The X-ray microscope uses a computer algorithm to generate the images. It does this by converting the diffraction patterns produced by the X-rays bouncing off the nanoscale structures into resolvable images.

While various other microscopes, such as atomic force microscopes, can see at the nanoscale, they are only able to see through thin samples. "The advantage of X-rays is they can see through materials," Shpyrko said.

The technique, for the first time, also allows scientists to see magnetic structure at the nanoscale level without the aid of a lens. This is important because it enables researchers to more easily manipulate the sample being studied, he noted. 

The computer algorithm that serves as the lens is similar to the technology that sharpened the Hubble Space Telescope's initially blurred images before its mirrors were repaired in space. A similar concept is employed by astronomers who use adaptive optics to remove distortion from their images.

To test the microscope, Shpryko and colleagues made a layered film composed of the magnetic elements gadolinium and iron that are being considered for the development of higher capacity, smaller, and faster computer memory and disk drives.

When combined, these materials self assemble into a series of magnetic stripes that look akin to the repeating swirls of the ridges in fingerprints. Being able to see these patterns will enable researchers to make and see smaller and smaller fingerprint patterns, known as magnetic domains, which will allow more data to be stored in a smaller space within a material, according to the researchers.

"We want to be able to make materials in a controlled fashion to build magnetic devices for data storage or, in biology or chemistry, to be able to manipulate matter at nanoscale," Shpryko said in a news release. "And in order to do that, we have to be able to see at the nanoscale. This technique allows you to do that."

Currently, the technology is "still somewhat a conceptual proof of principle," Shpryko told me, but given advances in technology, he can envision a future when the microscope technique finds uses in chemistry and biology, for example imaging cells and viruses with a spatial resolution higher than that available with visible light.

More on microscope technology:

A paper on the telescope was published online August 8 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-authors include: Ashish Tripathi, Jyoti Mohanty, Sebastian H. Dietze, Erik Shipton, Eric E. Fullerton, Sang Soo Kim, Ian McNulty.

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com.