If you look down at what you’re wearing and observe the material it’s made out of, pick up your phone and browse social media, or peer into your medicine cabinet, it is clear that microscopes have greatly shaped our understanding of the world we live in and the way we live it – often in ways that we don’t realise.
One type of microscope that underpins modern science is the electron microscope, which was first developed by Ernst Ruska in the 1930’s. Since then, it has been a powerful scientific tool that can answer important biological questions. Unlike light microscopes which use visible light to illuminate the object of interest, electron microscopes use electrons. These have shorter wavelengths than visible light which enables electron microscopes to reveal smaller structures in the specimen being investigated.
“The German physicist Ernst Ruska was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his work on the electron microscope.”
The electron microscope’s achievements include identifying the distinctive surface features of some systems in the body, which also gives us the ability to differentiate between healthy and diseased tissues. For example, the digestive system contains mucosal folds on its surface and projections called villi that can waft food and products of digestion along the digestive tract. The variations in the structure along the tract can be examined using this technology.
However, the use of the electron microscope is not limited to just biomedical research. Its use extends beyond life sciences and delves into other fields that you may not have considered at first.
Here are 3 examples of other electron microscopy applications:
Quality of Air
Electron microscopy can be used to assess the morphology of particles. Physical properties of particles in the air, such as their diameter and their shape, are important for characterising the particles’ behaviour, source and the possible impacts they can have on our health. The shape of particles can often reflect their method of formation and hence their source.
“Did you know that particles as small as 4µm in diameter can penetrate deep into your lungs? The electron microscope can examine these particles and tell us if they are hazardous to our health.”
The physical properties of particles can also determine where in the respiratory system they can be deposited. This is especially important as there are studies that point to air pollution involving particles as a contributing factor to an increased risk of respiratory disease. Acquiring more information about the sources of these particles can lead to taking further action in reducing them and therefore increase the quality of the air that we breathe.
Over the years, the power of electron microscopy has not only been harnessed by scientists but also by engineers. It is used to aid in the development of new nanotechnologies by characterising nanoscale materials and the properties that make them unique.
The high-resolution imaging of electron microscopes allows nanoscale engineering of components in some of our everyday objects such as mobile phones, plasma screen televisions and the materials for cars and aeroplanes. This therefore makes electron microscopy an imaging technology that a wide variety of industries can benefit from.
“A semiconductor, such as silicon, is a solid material with an electrical conductivity that falls between conductors and insulators. They are used a lot in electronic circuits because their conductivity can be controlled by adding impurities, hence why it is found in almost every electronic device you can find.”
Electron microscopy can be a means of providing valuable evidence for investigations and hence plays a significant role in forensic science. It can be used to analyse a wide range of specimens in depth, such as samples of clothing fibres and biological substances like hair and blood. Because of this, electron microscopy can give useful results in terms of identifying firearms, examining handwriting, analysing gunshot residues and more.
“The identification of firearms using an electron microscope can be done by looking for distinct characteristics on bullets which can help identify which firearms they originated from.”
Although the ample number of applications of electron microscopy is astounding, there are also limitations to this imaging technology. Disadvantages include its cost, large size, requirement of specialised training to use it, as well as the tedious preparation of specimens – they need to be sliced around one thousand times thinner than a human hair!
Despite this, electron microscopy remains a valuable piece of equipment that is used by many for its powerful ability to magnify and can result in contributions to various scientific and industrial advances.
So, the next time you put on your new swimsuit, browse the Internet, or treat that headache with the medicine from your cabinet, don’t forget that even the most minuscule of things play a fundamental role in helping us live comfortably – even the humble electron.
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