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Simple light microscopes work much like magnifying glasses. A specimen or object sits beneath a convex lens — a piece of plastic or glass with both sides curving outwards — and when light is reflected from the sample or object and through that lens, it bends toward the user’s eye to produce magnification.
Below, we explore the exciting history of magnifying glasses and the most powerful microscopes in the world.
A Brief History of Magnifying Glasses
While “magnifying tubes” date back as far as Roman times, the Dutch spectacle maker Zacharias Janssen is widely credited for developing the first compound microscope, which used two lenses, in the early 1600s.
In 1729, the invention of the achromatic lens — initially intended for use in eyeglasses — further improved the quality of microscopes. By the 1830s, advances in microscope technology had enabled the discovery of microscopic creatures and were helping scientists to uncover the causes of many illnesses and diseases — something that had long been a total mystery.
More recently, in 1986, the atomic force microscope was invented, and the era of advanced nano-research began. Today, microscopes are critical in medical research and testing, forensic investigations, and environmental and geological studies.
The most powerful microscopes are transmission electron microscopes (TEMs).
Transmission Electron Microscopes
First invented more than 90 years ago, TEMs have allowed scientists to view many types of viruses for the first time. These microscopes use electron beams instead of light rays to create a highly magnified image that enables researchers to observe very thin slices of a specimen.
In 2018, scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, unlocked a new use for these devices. Their microscope took the highest resolution images to date when it captured an image of molybdenum and sulfur atoms bonded together.
Around the same time, a research team from the University of Oregon demonstrated that TEMs could successfully image usually transparent materials, including lithium. This discovery has been valuable in supporting the development of lithium-based batteries.
TEMs cost between $100,000 and $10,000,000. Two of the most powerful devices available today are the TEAM 0.5 and the Titan Krios.
This device, which can make images to a resolution half the width of a hydrogen atom, allows scientists to view 3D images of atomic structures and supports the advancement of nanotechnology research. The $27 million project, which includes the development of two microscopes and a five-year research effort, was funded by the Department of Energy.
The Titan Krios is a 12-foot cryogenic transmission electron microscope (cryo-EM), which costs upward of $6 million. It is the most powerful and flexible high-resolution TEM for 3D images of biological samples.
Arizona State University (ASU) is one of the proud owners of a Titan Krios. Led by the university’s Associate Research Scientist, Dewight Williams, the team at ASU is working to “explore the complexities of cellular life.” The cryo-EM, which is kept in a basement to ensure a controlled and stable environment, takes as many as 5,000 images per day at a resolution of 1.4 angstroms.
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