Scientists say they have discovered how long it takes electrons to hop between atoms: about 320 quintillionths of a second.

Physicist Wilfried Wurth of the University of Hamburg and his team used X-ray pulses to watch an electron as it moved from a sulfur atom to a surface of ruthenium metal, which is one of the fastest processes ever studied. The scientists said their study also revealed the path taken by the electron.

Writing in the journal Nature, the authors suggest the use of polarized X-rays could distinguish electrons in different spin states. They could then watch how that affects the movement of electrons through materials.

Such understanding, they said, is crucial to developing methods of computing in which information is stored in the spin state of single electrons, a technique known as spintronics.

They also noted electron hopping is key to many biological processes such as photosynthesis.

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