Niobium Caterpillar

SEM image of niobium crystal sphere

An originally black and white SEM image of a niobium (AKA columbium) crystal sphere with color added.
Image Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

That's not a mutant neon caterpillar you're seeing. In fact, it's probably much smaller than you might think. A scanning electron microscope (SEM) at Oak Ridge National Lab snapped this picture of a single niobium crystal sphere.

One of the lesser known elements, niobium can be found in steel alloys used for applications such as jets, superconductors and spacecraft. Jewelry makers also often make use of the rare metal.

Scanning electron microscopes shoot high-energy electrons at samples. This energy dissipates in a number of ways, such as scattering, and the microscopes can detect these signals. In turn, scientists can translate these signals into images like the one seen above. Scanning electron microscopes can detect smaller objects than traditional optical microscopes which are limited by the wavelength of visible light.

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