Detection of photons emitted from single erbium atoms in energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy


The detection of photons emitted from single quantum objects is highly desirable for the diagnosis of nanoscale devices using microscopes. An extremely tiny probe (0.1 nm) with high current recently became available for aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscopy, and it is possible for individual atoms in nanoscale devices to be excited using such a highly focused probe1,2,3. Here, we demonstrate the successful detection of characteristic X-ray signals from single erbium atoms using energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. The intensities of the erbium L and M lines from a single erbium atom were extremely weak in comparison to the N edge of electron energy-loss spectroscopy, demonstrating the intrinsic difficulty in sensing single atoms using X-ray spectroscopy. Nevertheless, this work will certainly help in the advance towards obtaining X-ray spectra from single atoms and to evaluate the fluorescence yield on a single-atom basis.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Experimental set-up.
Figure 2: Single-atom EDX and EELS.
Figure 3: Line profiles of EDX and EELS.


  1. 1

    Suenaga, K. et al. Visualizing and identifying single atoms using electron energy-loss spectroscopy with low accelerating voltage. Nature Chem. 1, 415–418 (2009).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Krivanek, O. et al. Ultramicroscopy 110, 935–945 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Suenaga, K. & Koshino, M. Atom-by-atom spectroscopy at graphene edge. Nature 468, 1088–1090 (2010).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Suenaga, K. et al. Element-selective single atom imaging. Science 290, 2280–2282 (2000).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Varela, M. et al. Spectroscopic imaging of single atoms within a bulk solid. Phys. Rev. Lett. 92, 095502 (2004).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Egerton, R. in Electron Energy-Loss Spectroscopy in the Electron Microscope 3rd edn (Springer, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Muller, D. & Silcox, J. Delocalization in elastic scattering. Ultramicroscopy 59, 195–213 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Suenaga, K., Iizumi, Y. & Okazaki, T. Single atom spectroscopy with reduced delocalization effect using a 30 kV-STEM. Euro. Phys. J. 54, 033508 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Watanabe, M. in Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy, Imaging and Analysis (Pennycook, S. J. & Nellist, P. D. eds) Ch. 7, 291–351 (Springer, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Krause, M & Oliver, J. Natural widths of atomic K and L lines. J. Phys. Chem. Ref. Data 8, 329–338 (1979).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Chu, M.-W., Liou, S. C., Chang, C. P., Choa, F.-S. & Chen, C. H. Emergent chemical mapping at atomic-column resolution by energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy in an aberration-corrected electron microscope. Phys. Rev. Lett. 104, 196101 (2010).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Watanabe, M., Kanno, M. & Okunishi, E. Atomic-resolution elemental mapping by EELS and XEDS in aberration corrected STEM. JEOL News 45, 8–15 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    d'Alfonso, A. J., Freitag, B., Klenov, D. & Allen, L. J. Atomic-resolution chemical mapping using energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. Phys. Rev. B 81, 100101 (2010).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Terauchi, M. et al. Ultrasoft-X-ray emission spectroscopy using a newly designed wavelength-dispersive spectrometer attached to a transmission electron microscope. J. Electron Microsc. 61, 1–8 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Zagonel, L. et al. Nanometer scale spectral imaging of quantum emitters in nanowires and its correlation to their atomically resolved structure. Nano Lett. 11, 568–573 (2011).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Lovejoy, T. C. et al. Single atom identification by energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. Appl. Phys. Lett. 100, 154101 (2012).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported in part by the Nanotechnology Network Japan programme, sponsored by MEXT, the Japanese Government. The authors thank K. Kimoto for his valuable comment regarding cross-section calculations. The authors also thank Y. Iizumi and Y. Niimi for their help with specimen preparation. Thanks also go to one of the reviewers for an extended analysis of the displayed data as well as positive suggestions. K.S. acknowledges support from a Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research from MEXT (no. 19054017) and the JST Research Acceleration programme.

Author information




K.S. and S.M. conceived and designed the experiment. T.O. prepared the materials and S.M. contributed the apparatus. E.O. and K.S. performed the experiment. K.S. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. All authors commented on the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kazu Suenaga.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary information

Supplementary information (PDF 688 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Suenaga, K., Okazaki, T., Okunishi, E. et al. Detection of photons emitted from single erbium atoms in energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. Nature Photon 6, 545–548 (2012).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing