Big Dreams Can Come in the Smallest Spaces

He was told seeing an atom would be impossible. But a key collaboration, and some incredible technology, have redefined what's possible.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

When physicist Douglas Bonn was in high school, he was told by his teachers that he would never see atoms. But now that he’s collaborating with fellow physicist Sarah Burke, they are using a new kind of microscopy to observe superconducting materials at resolutions that were once widely thought to be impossible.

Burke and Bonn are both researchers at the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute at the University of British Columbia — an institute that fosters collaborations that make the things we once thought were impossible possible.

“Scanning probe microscopy is an extremely versatile set of techniques. We look at a really wide range of materials,” says Burke.

Under this umbrella of techniques is scanning tunneling microscopy, a technique that Bonn had wanted to try after years of only being able to observe superconductors through indirect measurements.

“Here’s a technique where we see atoms,” says Bonn. “And we see not just atoms, perhaps the most amazing effect that you see is something called quasiparticle interference, so you actually see the waves of electrons moving across the surface of the material.”

Microscopy has come a long way since the beginning of Bonn’s career to allow these kinds of observations.

“All the stuff I’ve done in superconductivity up until starting to collaborate with Sarah had been relatively indirect measurements — like you attach electrodes to something and figure out the electrical conductivity, you put it in microwave fields and see how it responds to microwave fields,” says Bonn.

“Here we can really literally, you’re looking at the electrons and electron waves in the material at an atomic scale. It’s really remarkable.”

Understanding superconductors at the atomic and subatomic levels could allow us to use them to a fuller extent, adds research associate Jisun Kim.

“I’m working on using the scanning tunneling microscope to basically understand the materials better,” says Kim. “If we can use it at room temperature, it will solve quite a bit of energy problems, so that is one thing I work on.”

The best news is that the innovations are still coming, and every day more things are becoming possible.

“The scanning tunneling microscopy is a difficult technique,” says Bonn. “It’s constantly moving ahead in terms of capabilities, so it gives us a chance to dream big.”

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