Unraveling the Molecular Structures of Asphaltenes by Atomic Force Microscopy

Petroleum is one of the most precious and complex molecular mixtures existing. Because of its chemical complexity, the solid component of crude oil, the asphaltenes, poses an exceptional challenge for structure analysis, with tremendous economic relevance. Here, we combine atomic-resolution imaging using atomic force microscopy and molecular orbital imaging using scanning tunnelling microscopy to study more than 100 asphaltene molecules. The complexity and range of asphaltene polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are established in detail. Identifying molecular structures provides a foundation to understand all aspects of petroleum science from colloidal structure and interfacial interactions to petroleum thermodynamics, enabling a first-principles approach to optimize resource utilization. Particularly, the findings contribute to a long-standing debate about asphaltene molecular architecture. Our technique constitutes a paradigm shift for the analysis of complex molecular mixtures, with possible applications in molecular electronics, organic light emitting diodes, and photovoltaic devices.