The history of microscopy spans more than a thousand years, starting from a just simple glass lens that ultimately developed into complicated contraptions that can easily cost millions of dollars.
You might have heard of one of the latest innovations in microscopy, the electron microscope, and we are sure you have a lot of questions. Well, here is a rundown on what an electron microscope is, what it’s for, and what you can see when you use one:
What is an electron microscope?
An electron microscope is one of the many different types of microscopes that can be found in laboratories. It is by far one of the most sophisticated microscopes, not to mention the most expensive.
The main and most important difference of electron microscopes from conventional light microscopes is that these make use of a beam of accelerated electrons, rather than a light wave of photons, which have a much longer wavelength, and therefore can only deliver a certain level of magnification and resolution.
High powered electron microscopes have an ultra high resolution that can let us see the individual atoms of any element, and this presents a multitude of unprecedented benefits for research and development.
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What is the purpose of an electron microscope?
An electron microscope is a sophisticated and versatile imaging device that can be used to study live and fixed organic and inorganic materials, as well as observe their transformation over a certain period of time.
Electron microscopes offer us the capability to study things right down to the atomic level. In other words, we can look at single atoms and atomic columns. This is critically important in a lot of disciplines and research that deal with things at the microscopic level and beyond, as it allows us to further our understanding how the world works down to every atom.
Moreover, it opens a host of possibilities in terms of practical applications. Being able to see each and every atom of a certain material translates to the power to manipulate them. Each atom of any object serves a purpose in determining its structural makeup, catalysis, and usage, and modifying even a single atom of this material can radically change its properties.
Thus, electron microscopy is extremely beneficial in various fields such as chemistry and nanomedicine, as well as in developing technologies for mass consumption such as portable devices.
Some facts about electron microscopes
Here are some more information about electron microscopes:
- The first electron microscope was developed in 1931 by physicist Ernst Ruska and engineer Max Knoll. This was a prototype that had the capability of a four hundred power magnification.
- There are two types of electron microscopes- the scanning electron microscope, and the transmission electron microscope, where SEM works by scanning scattered electrons and TEM transmits beams of electrons through the specimen.
- One of the latest electron microscopes is the Nion Hermes scanning transmission electron microscope, which has the capacity to render magnified images of objects that are a million times smaller than a single strand of hair.
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Electron microscope images
Below are some of the most outstanding images of various specimens taken from an electron microscope. These include some flora and fauna, cells, compounds, and inorganic material.
Flora and fauna
Tiny animals and plants such as insects and parasites and thin sections of a body part of larger flora and fauna can be studied through electron microscopy. Here are a few examples of plant and animal specimens viewed under an electron microscope, that provide great insight as to the appearance and structure of these organisms.
Internal structure of a pollen
This is an electron microscope image of a pollen’s intricate wall structure. The pollen has previously undergone acetolysis in order to remove its pollenkit and cytoplasm, thus revealing all these minute details.
Image taken by Louisa Howard from Dartmouth College’s E.M. Facility
Whitetop gall mite
This is an image of a whitetop gall mite taken with a scanning electron microscope. Whitetops are an invasive species of weed, and gall mites are tiny animals that cause growth abnormalities. This one is now being used as a biocontrol agent.
Image taken by Annie de Meij from Montana State University
This is a picture of a mite called Varroa destructor, a type of parasite, resting on an Apis honeybee. This was taken on a low temperature scanning electron microscope, and it’s an excellent depiction of parasitism on a microscopic scale.
Image taken by Erbe and Pooley from the US Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service
Cells and compounds
Fluids and other substances, as well as elements, compounds, and chemicals, can also be observed through an electron microscope. Here are some specimen images of blood cells and other organic compounds viewed under an electron microscope, showing the technological scope and potential of modern microscopy.
Human blood cells
This is a modified scanning electron image of red blood cells, depicting how certain processes of SEM imaging can be automated to animate the specimen image by colorizing it and making it three dimensional.
Image taken by Christophe Mignot from Cambridge University
Organic chemical reaction
This is a single frame of an organic chemical reaction recorded on an electron microscope. The process of carbon-sulfur bond formation was induced and observed through a combination of molecular and nano technologies.
Image taken by researchers from the Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry of Russian Academy of Sciences
Finally, inorganic material ranging from dirt particulates, sediments, rocks, precious metals, and crystals, can be analyzed using electron microscopes. Here is an interesting view of a microscopic sample of crystal from the moon, which offers valuable information on the geographical and topographical conditions on the moon.
Iron crystals from the moon
This is a photograph of iron crystals on a piece of fragmented rock from the moon, viewed under a scanning electron microscope. The stellarly perfect development of these crystals show insight as to its slow formation process.
Image taken by NASA on November 10, 1972 from the Apollo 15 Hadley-Apennino lunar landing site