Less than one month ago, the University of Victoria – located just 20 km from where I live – made history when its Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope (STEHM) went online and began taking pictures. The microscope, which is located in the vault beneath the University, conducted its first operation by zapping a fleck of gold and producing the world’s most highly magnified image.
The nondescript shot of gold atoms proved what many were already hoping for – that his STEHM is indeed the most powerful in the world, even during its “tuning” phase. Built by Hitachi High Technologies Canada, the STEHM is a one-of-a-kind machine and is the highest-resolution microscope ever built, designed to allow researchers to see things at a magnification up to 20 million times larger than the human eye can see.
Apparently, the image of the gold atoms resolved at 34 picometres, thus breaking the record for highest resolution shot ever made by an electron microscope. Previously, this record was held by the This beats out the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California which took an image at a resolution of 49 picometres. A picometre, it should be noted, is a trillionth of a meter, and a gold atom is about 332 picometres in diameter.
Rodney Herring, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of UVic’s Advanced Microscopy Facility, had this to say about the image in an interview with Saanich News:
For me it was a relief. I’d been telling everybody this could potentially have the best resolution and be the most powerful microscope in the world. But it wasn’t proven yet. Now we’ve got information down to 34 picometres and we aren’t done yet. We are still tuning the lab.
With the tuning and testing phase complete, Herring and his associates launched the microscope this month. The university had hoped to open the lab to outsider researchers this past winter, but the microscopes assembly and calibrations have been so maddeningly complicated that any such plans have been stalled and it only recently became operational. However, as Herring noted, tons of researchers are already lined up and looking to use it.
Literally everyone- from engineers, physicists, and chemists, to biologists and medical researchers – are looking to use the microscope to advance the sciences of medical and environmental diagnostics, communications, computers, alternative energy and manufacturing. However, the potential scientific breakthroughs for such a machine are yet to be fully contemplated, and present many exciting possibilities.All told, this machine will be able to probe and create 3D images of items like brain neurons and their synapses and muscle tissue, or probe microchip circuitry assembled at nearly the atomic level. Herring said the machine could create “pico technology,” where devices would be made one atom at a time.
This research would prove to be a boon for many areas of science, but especially for nanotechnology. Chemistry professor Alex Brolo oversees nanotechnology development related to items like medical sensors and solar cells at UVic, and said the STEHM will be critical in creating more precise devices, and without having to use powerful electron microscopes elsewhere in Canada.
And considering that more and more technology is being scaled at the nano level, any advancements made in this field would be both lucrative and incredibly significant. As it stands, the STEHM is the only microscope of its kind because of its complexity, and because of this, Hitachi has indicated that it does not plan to manufacture another like it anytime soon.
All of this puts the Advanced Microscopy Facility, and the University of Victoria in general, in a pretty comfortable position. For what could be years to come, they will have the most advanced microscope in the world at their disposal and be able to take part in some serious scientific advances. What’s more, they will surely be suffocated by petitions from research labs and scientists looking to get access to it.
Sometimes, it pays to have the most powerful microscope on the block!