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Tiny insights: Microscope makes 3-D images of nano structures

3-D image of battery
This 3-D reconstruction of a lithium ion battery electrode, composed of 1,441 individual images captured and aligned by the TXM, reveals nano-scale structural details to help guide future energy research.DOE / BNL

Great things come in small packages and now scientists have an easier way to see what they look like thanks to a new microscope that creates high-resolution, 3-D images of structures measured in nanometers.

The tool, a full-field transmission X-ray microscope, promises to advance fields from energy research and environmental science to national defense, according to scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

For example, in experimental tests, the lab was able to create 3-D images of internal structures in a 20-micrometer electrode from a lithium ion battery. Those structures are important, the team notes, because the internal interaction of pores and particles there determines the battery’s performance.

With images of them, the thinking goes, researchers should be able to improve the batteries, leading to more smiles on the faces of everyone who types on a laptop, drives an electric car or uses any other device that’s powered by a lithium ion battery.

The microscope was developed with Xradia, a specialized X-ray microscope company, at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source, which provides the X-ray source needed to capture images on the nanoscale. 

To create 3-D image of the electrode, the team took 1,441 2-D images of it as a machine rotated around it so they could capture every possible angle. 

The challenge is stitching those images together to make a 3-D picture, which is troublesome because every nanometer wobble of the electrode as the machine rotates around it is akin having a person jump two feet to one side while trying to take their picture.

Before the new microscope was created, dealing with that challenge required manually aligning every image – or using software to interpret the shifts. That was slow and difficult, especially when trying to match images without sharp features as guidelines, the lab notes in a press release.

The new microscope overcomes this with sensors that measure nanometer shifts in any direction as the machine rotates around it taking pictures. A computer then accounts for those shifts and stitches together the 3-D image. 

“The device works beautifully, and it overcome several major obstacles for X-ray microscopes,” Jun Wang, a Brookhaven physicist who led the team that proposed the microscope, said in the release. “We’re excited to see the way this technology pushes research.”

Her team details how the microscope works in the April issue of Applied Physics Letters.

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website  and follow him on Twitter . For more of our Future of Technology  series, watch the featured video below.