Hydrogen Bonds are Ready for Their Close-Up

And you thought your iPhone camera had good range. For the first time in history, scientists have managed to directly detect hydrogen bonds, opening up a whole new realm of discoveries about the makeup of the universe.

The Tale of the Atomic Force Microscope

Typically, researchers have had a rough go of studying hydrogen bonds: not only are they extremely small, but the weak bonds are easy to break, making it difficult to analyze them. But recently, researchers at the University of Basel's Swiss Nanoscience Institute were able to use an atomic force microscope (AFM)—a microscope that, just like it sounds, visualizes and measures forces between atoms—to study hydrogen atoms and hydrogen bonds in individual molecules.

As Science Alert describes, researchers used hydrocarbon compounds that always orient themselves in a such a way that they have two hydrogen atoms pointing upwards. They then used an atomic-force microscope—tipped on the end with carbon monoxide, to make it extremely sensitive to hydrogen—to analyze these compounds. When the tip got close enough, hydrogen bonds formed between the compounds and the carbon monoxide molecules, allowing the AFM to directly observe the bonds and measure their force.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The technique is a breakthrough in studying hydrogen bonds—bonds that are essential to nature. Hydrogen bonds are the bonds that help keep our DNA base pairs together, along with the bonds that keep water molecules intact. The study has also opened up new ways of identifying molecules like nucleic acids or polymers just by observing hydrogen atoms, as Sci-News reports.

By understanding more about the microscopic world of bonds, scientists hope to learn even more about the material world. "Hydrocarbons are one of the most varied and functionalized products at the heart of engineering, chemistry, and life, and hydrogen is often critical in their function," researchers said. Now that they've developed a way to visualize hydrogen bonds and precisely measure their force, it could unlock new secrets of the microscopic world.

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Bonds

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Written by Stephanie Bucklin June 5, 2017

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