Unlike your typical spring-powered scale, high-precision scales used to weigh the smallest materials use carbon nanotubes which vibrate at different frequencies depending on the mass on them. However, a group of scientists at the Catalan Institute of Nanotechnology in Barcelona, Spain have achieved an unprecedented level of accuracy with their nanotube scales, which are sensitive down to one yoctogram, or 10-24 grams. For reference, a single proton weighs about 1.7 yoctograms.
In the team’s study, they explain that the accuracy of their nanotube scales is due to their length. Their scales use shorter nanotubes, which give them a much better idea of an objects true weight. Of course, making carbon nanotubes is still something of a tricky process, so don’t expect these proton-accurate scales to start appearing in your grocery store or head shop anytime soon.
You might at this point be wondering why on Earth anyone would want scales sensitive enough to weigh a single proton. In their study, the researchers write that their scales give them a view into how molecules and atoms interact.
This unprecedented level of sensitivity allows us to detect adsorption events of naphthalene molecules (C10H8), and to measure the binding energy of a xenon atom on the nanotube surface.
According to the New Scientist, these scales could have medical applications since they can distinguish between single protons — which can be the markers of disease. Using these hypersensitive scales, researchers can also distinguish between different elements in a sample.
Though the practical implications may be beyond the comprehension of us regular folk, the ability to perceive these tiny pieces of existence is nothing short of astounding.
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