One of the most important inventions in microscopy in the 20th century that has largely shaped how we approach science and technology is the electron microscope. It’s a uniquely wonderful imaging device that puts all other microscopes in shame.
Electron microscopes offer us certain features and capabilities that are like no other. These microscopes have enabled scientists and researchers to see things never seen before, things that were mere concepts and figments of our imagination.
But, having said all those things, an electron microscope is nowhere near a perfect, one size fits all piece of technology. It certainly comes with its fair share of disadvantages. The only question is, what are the advantages of electron microscopes, and what is one disadvantage associated with electron microscopes?
Advantage of electron microscopes
As one of the most advanced types of microscope by far, an electron microscope offers a lot of undeniable and important advantages that only it can deliver, and this has proven by the sheer magnitude of advancements in today’s society.
One of the most important benefits of using an electron microscope is its superbly high magnification power that simply cannot be achieved by any other type of microscope, such as conventional light microscopes.
In fact, electron microscopes have the capacity to magnify the image of a specimen up to 500,000 times, which allows us to see the most minute details of just about any kind of specimen.
This is large because of how the microscope operates, which is by using electron beams and special optical electron lens systems that are generated by a strategically shaped magnetic field inside the microscope.
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Another very important advantage of electron microscopes is its unparalleled and unprecedented resolving power. These microscopes have the capability to distinguish the details, properties, and features of any specimen up to a single nanometer small, or less.
This unique ability allows us to see molecular structures, nanoparticles, and most importantly, individual atoms. This means we are looking at nanoscale elements that are millions of times smaller than a piece of thread.
What makes this possible is the microscope’s use of accelerated electron beams, rather than conventional photons from visible light, since electrons have a wavelength that is thousands of times shorter than visible light when it behaves like a light wave.
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Versatility of use
The beauty of electron microscopes is that these can be used on just about any type of organic and inorganic specimen, allowing us to study anything from plants, animals, parasites, and other microorganisms, various types of cells, biopsy samples, viruses and pathogens, chemical compounds, natural and induced reactions, rocks, crystals, metals, and many more.
Whichever type of material you wish to analyze, there is an electron microscope that you can use. This is primarily why electron microscopes have become prevalent in many different fields of study, from the purely academic to the industrial.
As such, electron microscopes have paved the way for a lot of new research and development, thereby enhancing our understanding of how the world works, and improving our quality of life with modern devices and technologies.
Compatibility with other technologies
Another great thing about electron microscopes is that these are highly compatible with a variety of other technologies, tools, and techniques that can further improve how we see, analyze, and even manipulate different materials.
These tools and techniques allow us to see specimen images in color and in three dimensions, as well as enable us to monitor, record, and map changes in the specimen in real-time, induce certain reactions, and manipulate or modify the specimen.
All of this brings us into new heights when it comes to being able to better understand the mechanisms of these materials, and more importantly, being able to create innovations by modifying the material in such a way that will better benefit us.
The disadvantage of electron microscopes
With all those things in mind, there are still a few things that make electron microscopes quite difficult to use. So, if you are wondering “what is one disadvantage associated with electron microscopes?” well, there are quite a few.
Perhaps the reason why there aren’t that many electron microscopes out there, aside from the sheer cost of manufacturing and maintaining one, is that these microscopes come with more than a few special requirements in terms of housing.
First, unlike your typical compound light microscope, an electron microscope is a gigantic piece of equipment that spans the room from floor to ceiling and takes up more than a few feet of space, so it can’t fit in just any laboratory.
Moreover, electron microscopes also need to be housed in a facility that is equipped with a system for canceling magnetic fields, which is why you’ll find that many electron microscopes are located underground.
Another special requirement when using electron microscopes is that the specimen needs to be placed inside a secure environment that is devoid of air, particle, and precipitate- more specifically, a vacuum chamber.
This is because the microscope utilizes electron beams, and any extra particle or molecule that does not belong to the specimen will disrupt these electrons and skew the image as they come into contact with the electrons.
Although, the good thing is, there are now certain types of electron microscopes specially designed for liquid and gaseous substances which cannot be contained inside a vacuum. But for most solid and semi-solid materials, vacuum chambers are a must.
Finally, there is also the issue of sample preparation. While this is a common requirement for many types of microscopes, electron microscopes take this task one step further, especially since electrons are hypersensitive elements.
For most types of electron microscopes and for most kinds of specimens, a certain amount of sample preparation must be performed beforehand, all to stabilize the specimen and make the image as accurately representative as possible.
This can mean anywhere from dehydrating the sample, sectioning it into thin pieces, staining certain parts of the specimen, freezing it in liquid nitrogen, or many other processes such as pressurization, chemical fixation, vitrification, earthing, and metal shadowing.
See also: Electron microscope images
Electron microscopes are uniquely amazing imaging tools with extremely high magnification and resolution capabilities, that can let us look through any material and see its each and every atom, opening a host of possibilities for science and technology.
But, this advanced level of microscopy isn’t faultless, and so, scientists and engineers continue to strive in developing electron microscopes to better meet our needs.