Those craggy peaks? They’re just micrometers tall. This miniature red-rock landscape offers a window into the engineering behind precision multilayer Laue lenses (MLL), which focus high-intensity x-rays to within a single nanometer. The higher the intensity of the x-rays, the smaller the object we can potentially see with them – but focusing on that scale gets tricky.
These incredibly precise lenses are actually grown – yes, you read that right – one atomic layer at a time. Once a solid block is formed, individual tower-shaped lenses can be chiseled out of atrench using reactive ion etching.
When X-rays pass through these itty bitty MLLs, the photons bend toward a single point and reveal structural details so small they’d otherwise be impossible to see. And the small bits we’re eyeing through these lenses can have huge impacts – like nanocatalysts inside electric vehicle fuel cells. Once we can see them, scientists can improve the structure and performance of the materials.
For the record, this scanning electron microscope image showcases the growing pains and warped structures of an imperfect MLL. A stunning imperfection, though, to be sure. But don’t you worry, the process has already been tweaked and improved.