Three-dimensional coordinates of individual atoms in materials revealed by electron tomography

Nat Mater. 2015 Nov;14(11):1099-103. doi: 10.1038/nmat4426. Epub 2015 Sep 21.


Crystallography, the primary method for determining the 3D atomic positions in crystals, has been fundamental to the development of many fields of science. However, the atomic positions obtained from crystallography represent a global average of many unit cells in a crystal. Here, we report, for the first time, the determination of the 3D coordinates of thousands of individual atoms and a point defect in a material by electron tomography with a precision of ∼19 pm, where the crystallinity of the material is not assumed. From the coordinates of these individual atoms, we measure the atomic displacement field and the full strain tensor with a 3D resolution of ∼1 nm(3) and a precision of ∼10(-3), which are further verified by density functional theory calculations and molecular dynamics simulations. The ability to precisely localize the 3D coordinates of individual atoms in materials without assuming crystallinity is expected to find important applications in materials science, nanoscience, physics, chemistry and biology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Electron Microscope Tomography / methods*
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional / methods*
  • Models, Theoretical*