An electron microscope that could help make devices such as smartphones smaller and faster has been unveiled in Glasgow.
Scientists say the drive for more compact computer processors is pushing engineers to the limit, with some connections now only a few atoms wide.
The £2.65 million MagTEM microscope, unveiled at Glasgow University`s Kelvin Nanocharacterisation Centre, will allow them to scrutinise individual atoms and probe their chemical, magnetic and electronic properties with unprecedented detail.
"The advances made in the field of electronic engineering in the last few decades have been staggering," said Professor Alan Craven, of the university's School of Physics and Astronomy.
"The smartphones in our pockets are millions of times faster than the bulky desktop computers of only a few years ago, for example.
"However, the drive to make devices smaller and faster has led manufacturers to push their technical abilities to the absolute limits.
"As the scale of engineering decreases to where connections can be a handful of atoms wide, the need for advanced microscopy becomes more urgent to facilitate understanding of why a material or device succeeds or fails."
Electron microscopes use a concentrated beam of electrons to produce their images, unlike traditional microscopes, which use visible light to magnify objects for examination.
Electrons have a much shorter wavelength that the photons which comprise visible light, making it possible to resolve images at much greater magnification.
Modern electron microscopes also allow scientists to examine other properties of materials including their structure, composition, chemistry and magnetism.
The MagTEM microscope will be used to help commercially develop and refine technologies including stronger forms of steel for the automotive industry, sensor systems and hard disks.
Its magnetic imaging capabilities will allow it to image the operation of magnetic devices such as hard disks below the dimensions of individual storage bits, a process which no other electron microscope in the world is currently capable of doing.
The microscope could also lead to breakthroughs in "spintronics", where data could be stored in values of 0 to 3 rather than the increasingly limited 0 and 1 binary code that has been used since the earliest computers.
"This is a unique piece of equipment that will help to keep Scotland at the cutting edge of science research," said learning and science minister Dr Alasdair Allan.
"Glasgow's international partnership with (microscope manufacturer) JEOL will benefit several of our universities through SUPA, the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance.
"The device also has the potential to be useful to industry, strengthening the links between academic research and businesses seeking to compete more effectively in today's global market."