Purdue University scientists are using a rare type of electron microscope to determine how structures like carbon nanotubes form at the atomic level.

The information gained by the new transmission electron microscope is expected to be crucial for nanotechnology to find practical applications in computing, electronics and other areas.

The $4 million, 3.5 ton electron microscope rests on its own concrete slab to protect it from the building’s vibrations.

Before we can consistently manufacture nanostructures that have the same specifications and qualities, we have to learn precisely how atoms interact and come together to form these structures, said Eric Stach, an associate professor of materials engineering who operates the microscope at the Birck Nanotechnology Center.

In the lab, a whole bunch of nanotubes are grown, and then you see which one has good properties, Stach said. "You cannot yet control how to get the exact nanotube twice, but in order to move from the laboratory into creating something that can be engineered … we have to have an understanding of the process.

Now we are going to be able to take pictures that show individual carbon atoms interacting with the metal catalyst and growing into nanotubes.

The fine art of nanotechnology.