Researchers at The Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab have have released the first images of chemical bonds breaking and forming during a reaction. To capture these amazing images, the team used a noncontact atomic force microscope (nc-AFM). Continue reading to see how it works.

The reaction took place on a flat silver substrate, which was then probed with the nc-AFM. Unlike an electron microscope, the nc-AFM measures faint atomic forces with a “needle” consisting of a single carbon monoxide molecule.

The oxygen atom hangs down and is mechanically deflected by the electronic forces present in the sample. It’s a little bit like a record player needle running along the grooves of a 45. The nc-AFM needle can detect not only the atoms themselves, but the forces representing the bonds holding molecules together.