Electron microscope focuses to atomic level

A novel electron microscope was unveiled on Thursday (24 January) that uses computer control to let it produce images at the atomic level. Dr Andrew Bleloch (pictured), techncal director at the STFC Daresbury Laboratory where the microscope has been installed, said SuperSTEM 2 is needed for nanotechnology and medical research.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council's Daresbury Laboratory unveiled a novel electron microscope on Thursday (24 January) that uses computer control to let it produce images at the atomic level.

Funded by the EPSRC and led by the University of Liverpool, the SuperSTEM 2 was created by scientists from the universities of Liverpool, Glasgow and Leeds and the Daresbury Laboratory. STFC said SuperSTEM 2 can show an atom at 20 million times its size.

The microscope works by scanning a beam of electrons across the surface of a sample and can provide chemical information at the same time. Although scanning transmission electron microscopy has been used as a technique for some years, detailed imaging of atoms was previously impossible due to lens defects. SuperSTEM 2 uses a computer-controlled system to correct these defects.

At the unveiling of the microscope, SuperSTEM 2 technical director Dr Andrew Bleloch said: "Our society places huge value on making things smaller, cheaper, faster and more effective. This often requires the creation of new materials, new ways of making materials and the understanding of the atoms within them. Progression in nanotechnology makes this all possible, but with this comes the responsibility of ensuring that these products are safe to use.

"The behaviour of atoms can change, depending on the size of the particle they are in. SuperSTEM 2 means that researchers can now study how these atoms behave in their 'native' form and how they might perform as components of different products that come into contact with human beings. An example of this would be how face creams or sun lotions work and how our bodies will react with the atoms found within them."

The SuperSTEM 2 is being applied to a wide range of projects, including medical research to achieve a deeper understanding of the liver disease haemochromatosis, where the liver becomes overloaded with iron. The tiny particles that hold iron within the body are being examined as their structure will shed light on how iron is transported, stored and released in the body and why they become toxic to the body when there is too much of it. The microscope is also being used in the development of mountain bike tyres and for research into deep submicron semiconductors.

Image: Dr Andrew Bleloch at the unveiling of the SuperSTEM 2 microscope

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