4D electron microscopy: Principles and applications

David J. Flannigan, Ahmed H. Zewail

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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The transmission electron microscope (TEM) is a powerful tool enabling the visualization of atoms with length scales smaller than the Bohr radius at a factor of only 20 larger than the relativistic electron wavelength of 2.5 pm at 200 keV. The ability to visualize matter at these scales in a TEM is largely due to the efforts made in correcting for the imperfections in the lens systems which introduce aberrations and ultimately limit the achievable spatial resolution. In addition to the progress made in increasing the spatial resolution, the TEM has become an all-in-one characterization tool. Indeed, most of the properties of a material can be directly mapped in the TEM, including the composition, structure, bonding, morphology, and defects. The scope of applications spans essentially all of the physical sciences and includes biology.Until recently, however, high resolution visualization of structural changes occurring on sub-millisecond time scales was not possible. In order to reach the ultrashort temporal domain within which fundamental atomic motions take place, while simultaneously retaining high spatial resolution, an entirely new approach from that of millisecond-limited TEM cameras had to be conceived. As shown below, the approach is also different from that of nanosecond-limited TEM, whose resolution cannot offer the ultrafast regimes of dynamics. For this reason "ultrafast electron microscopy" is reserved for the field which is concerned with femtosecond to picosecond resolution capability of structural dynamics.In conventional TEMs, electrons are produced by heating a source or by applying a strong extraction field. Both methods result in the stochastic emission of electrons, with no control over temporal spacing or relative arrival time at the specimen. The timing issue can be overcome by exploiting the photoelectric effect and using pulsed lasers to generate precisely timed electron packets of ultrashort duration. The spatial and temporal resolutions achievable with short intense pulses containing a large number of electrons, however, are limited to tens of nanometers and nanoseconds, respectively. This is because Coulomb repulsion is significant in such a pulse, and the electrons spread in space and time, thus limiting the beam coherence. It is therefore not possible to image the ultrafast elementary dynamics of complex transformations. The challenge was to retain the high spatial resolution of a conventional TEM while simultaneously enabling the temporal resolution required to visualize atomic-scale motions.In this Account, we discuss the development of four-dimensional ultrafast electron microscopy (4D UEM) and summarize techniques and applications that illustrate the power of the approach. In UEM, images are obtained either stroboscopically with coherent single-electron packets or with a single electron bunch. Coulomb repulsion is absent under the single-electron condition, thus permitting imaging, diffraction, and spectroscopy, all with high spatiotemporal resolution, the atomic scale (sub-nanometer and femtosecond). The time resolution is limited only by the laser pulse duration and energy carried by the electron packets; the CCD camera has no bearing on the temporal resolution. In the regime of single pulses of electrons, the temporal resolution of picoseconds can be attained when hundreds of electrons are in the bunch.The applications given here are selected to highlight phenomena of different length and time scales, from atomic motions during structural dynamics to phase transitions and nanomechanical oscillations. We conclude with a brief discussion of emerging methods, which include scanning ultrafast electron microscopy (S-UEM), scanning transmission ultrafast electron microscopy (ST-UEM) with convergent beams, and time-resolved imaging of biological structures at ambient conditions with environmental cells.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1828-1839
Number of pages12
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 16 2012

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