New synchrotron X-ray technique could see hidden building blocks of life
Scientists from Finland and France have developed a new synchrotron X-ray technique that may revolutionize the chemical analysis of rare materials like meteoric rock samples or fossils. The results have been published on 29 May 2011 in Nature Materials as an advance online publication.
Life, as we know it, is based on the chemistry of carbon and oxygen. The three-dimensional distribution of their abundance and chemical bonds has been difficult to study up to now in samples where these elements were embedded deep inside other materials. Examples are tiny inclusions of possible water or other chemicals inside martian rock samples, fossils buried inside a lava rock, or minerals and chemical compounds within meteorites.
X-ray tomography, which is widely used in medicine and material science, is sensitive to the shape and texture of a given sample but cannot reveal chemical states at the macroscopic scale. For instance graphite and diamond both consist of pure carbon, but they differ in the chemical bond between the carbon atoms. This is why their properties are so radically different. Imaging the variations in atomic bonding has been surprisingly difficult, and techniques for imaging of chemical bonds are highly desirable in many fields like engineering and research in physics, chemistry, biology, and geology.
Now an international team of scientists from the University of Helsinki, Finland, and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), Grenoble, France, has developed a novel technique that is suitable exactly for this purpose. The researchers use extremely bright X-rays from a synchrotron light source to form images of the chemical bond distribution of different carbon forms embedded deep in an opaque material; an achievement previously thought to be impossible without destroying the sample.
The newly developed method will give insights into the molecular level structure of many other interesting materials ranging, for example, from novel functional nanomaterials to fuel cells and new types of batteries.