By this fall, the world’s most powerful microscope will fire up in a basement at the University of Victoria, and allow scientists to enter a new frontier of subatomic research.
But right now, the bulky, stainless steel components are barely cut from their packaging after arriving from Germany on Tuesday. UVic engineering professor Rodney Herring and Hitachi technology manager David Hoyle will spend the summer piecing together 4.5 metre high, seven tonne device, known as the scanning transmission electron holography microscope (STEHM).
“This is the Ferrari of microscopes,” Herring says smiling. Or is it the Lamborghini? “Ferrari,” he says.
Indeed, the electron gun, aberration correctors and lens package will give scientists the ability to probe to a scale of about one-fifth the diameter of an atom, or about 20 million times magnification from human sight.
Nanotechnology works at the level of billionths of a metre – the nanometre. This microscope drills down into trillionths of a metre, the rarefied picometre scale. It can resolve images at 50 picometres and smaller. A silicon atom by comparison is roomy at 235 picometres across.
The device can also manipulate its electron beam to capture and move individual atoms and even single electrons. Hoyle noted that during testing in Germany, they punched single atom holes in a sheet of gold.
“This is the first of its kind. It is the next generation of electron microscope,” says Elaine Humphrey, manager of the UVic advanced microscopy facility and a biology professor. “We are going below 50 picometres. In picometre technology, there’s not a lot of it around.”
In the basement lab in the Bob Wright building, Herring and Hoyle joke about using duct tape to hold the microscope components together, but this is a decade-long project of mind boggling engineering and scientific precision. Herring designed the microscope and Hitachi High-Technologies built it in Japan, and Germany’s CEOS installed the correctors in Heidelberg, but it wasn’t an easy road.
Herring shopped his design to a number of high-tech companies, but most didn’t believe the level of magnification and resolution was possible. Hitachi itself needed convincing that the engineering would work and the investment was sound. The final bill isn’t public knowledge – Herring said $9.2 million from government research grants and UVic is “less than half the cost.”
“(The microscope) is an expensive machine,” he said. “For a high-tech company it’s like the jewel in the crown. It’s arguably the highest level of technology made … other than (the Large Hadron Collider) or the International Space Station.”
Everything on the STEHM hits the extremes – it has the most advanced electron gun, and highest resolution imaging and largest magnification of anything on earth. The vacuum chamber in the electron gun apparatus nearly replicates the kind of extreme emptiness of deep space.
The underground metal chamber that houses the microscope effectively eliminates all sound and external vibrations. It sits on a concrete foundation physically separate from the Bob Wright building, which sits on an existing slab of bedrock too big to vibrate from passing vehicles.
Herring said slight vibrations from the human voice or imperceptible pressure changes from a passing cloud would disrupt the machine, if it operated in the open – so will operate in a chamber over-pressured and lined with sound absorbing material.
The metal chassis that houses the microscope’s ultra-precise electronics is a metal-composite that is somehow extremely rigid but dampens vibrations – its internal filling is a secret known only to Hitachi engineers. Hoyle said he’s not allowed to talk about it.
Building the microscope “is all about stability, stability, stability,” Hoyle said.
The UVic advanced microscopy facility hopes to have the STEHM up and running by October. Similar to how astronomers book observation time on big telescopes, scientists and engineers from across the planet are already booking research time on the world’s most powerful microscope.
Uses for the STEHM are somewhat esoteric, but the device is expected aid breakthroughs in scores of fields, from computing and nanotechnology, to medical diagnostics and solid-state physics. It will allow physicists and chemists to peer into the atom with untold precision, allowing fundamental research that confirms physical theories of matter.
“The unique feature of this microscope is that is can see atoms and tell the type of atom we’re looking at,” Herring said. “We can look at how electrons bond atoms together. We can see the fundamental chemistry of chemical bonding.”
At a slightly larger scale, Humphrey said the machine will allow biomedical researchers to create, for instance, unprecedented high-resolution 3-D images of neuron connections in tissues. Computer engineers can map schematics increasingly small integrated circuits, at the atomic level.
“Semi conductors are getting smaller and smaller. Just look at cellphones,” Humphrey said. “We can look at atomic structure (of a circuit) and map it, map where the atoms are.”
Herring expects STEHM will remain on the cutting-edge of microscopy for years to come and will put the university on the world map in terms of providing a facility for fundamental subatomic research. At UVic, the world of the very small has become very big.
For more on the Hitachi STEHM microscope see the UVic advanced microscopy facility.