A pioneering team from IBM in Zurich has published single-molecule images so detailed that the type of atomic bonds between their atoms can be discerned.
The same team took the first-ever single-molecule image in 2009 and more recently published images of a molecule shaped like the Olympic rings.
The new work opens up the prospect of studying imperfections in the "wonder material" graphene or plotting where electrons go during chemical reactions.
The team, which included French and Spanish collaborators, used a variant of a technique called atomic force microscopy, or AFM.
AFM uses a tiny metal tip passed over a surface, whose even tinier deflections are measured as the tip is scanned to and fro over a sample.
The IBM team's innovation to create the first single molecule picture, of a molecule called pentacene, was to use the tip to pick up a single, small molecule made up of a carbon and an oxygen atom.