Researchers have managed for the first time to see how electrons hop around in rust, one of Earth’s most abundant minerals. Their observations will help make sense of how rust – known to scientists as iron oxide – interacts with soil, water and even bacteria in the environment. It could also help make better materials for capturing energy from the sun.
Although minerals like iron oxide do not appear to us to be moving or changing at all, on the subatomic scale there is a whirlwind of activity. Electrons hop around very quickly from one iron atom to the next. According to this recent study, these hops can happen billions of times per second.
Seeing in detail how electrons are exchanged between iron atoms and also from iron to other molecules makes it possible to better understand how iron oxide affects soil and water in the environment. It could also help in making predictions about how environmental contaminants such as uranium will spread.
Solar power is another area where this knowledge could be useful. Jordan Katz, who led the study, said in a statement, “Iron oxide is a semiconductor that is abundant, stable and environmentally friendly, and its properties are optimal for absorption of sunlight. To use iron oxide for solar energy collection and conversion, however, it is critical to understand how electrons are transferred within the material.”
Capturing the rapid activity of electrons requires specialized equipment and facilities, including a powerful source of X-rays. An international team carried out the research and used the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, USA for their experiments. The results were published recently in the journal Science.
Image courtesy Benjamin Gilbert, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Posted on Wednesday, 19th September, 2012