Mathematics to reveal atomic structure wins first Philips Mathematics Prize

Can physicists obtain a 3D image of the positions of all individual atoms inside tiny crystals?

Date: Mar 30, 2006

Can physicists obtain a 3D image of the positions of all individual atoms inside tiny crystals? For his presentation on new mathematical techniques to make these images, CWI researcher Joost Batenburg won the first Philips Mathematics Prize for PhD students. Six finalists competed to give the best presentation during the NMC2006 conference in Delft, on March 28, 2006. The jury - Rien Kaashoek, Piet Wesseling and Willem van Zwet - selected 'Steps towards 3D atomic resolution microscopy using discrete tomography' as the winner. They praised the fact that this mathematical research had many links with modern physics. Emile Aarts, Vice President and Scientific Program Director of the Philips Research Laboratories Eindhoven, presented a certificate and 500 euro to Batenburg, PhD student at CWI and also working at the Mathematisch Instituut in Leiden.

"This topic is considered the Holy Grail in electron microscopy," Joost Batenburg explains. "In materials science, it is very important to know the precise structure of very small crystals - nanocrystals. My research will help to understand material properties, such as superconductivity or the behaviour of semiconductors." At the moment it is practically impossible to make a 3D reconstruction of all atoms in a crystal, even with the newest electron microscopes and the latest so-called tomographic reconstruction methods. "Existing algorithms require too many projections to reconstruct good images," Batenburg says. "The new subfield 'discrete tomography' focuses on image reconstruction from a small number of projections, with much better results."