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‘Unseen world’ revealed as University of Victoria launches world's most powerful microscope

The University of Victoria’s one-of-a-kind microscope is winning global interest from academics and businesses keen to find out what secrets the high-resolution device can reveal.
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Elaine Humphrey, manager of the University of VictoriaÍs Advance Microscope Facility, shows UVicÍs seven-tonne, 4.5-metre-tall microscope thatÍs garnering attention from scholars and businesses around the world. The unique instrument can zoom in on subatomic objects at a magnification of up to 20 million times larger than what a human eye can see. ñWe have the highest resolution in the world,î Humphrey says.

The University of Victoria’s one-of-a-kind microscope is winning global interest from academics and businesses keen to find out what secrets the high-resolution device can reveal.

Workshops to train scientists studying everything from medicine to engineering on how to use the ultra-sensitive microscope are expected to start this fall.

“We have bragging rights. We have the highest resolution in the world,” Elaine Humphrey, manager of UVic’s Advance Microscope Facility, said Tuesday.

UVic scientists are learning how to use the new Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope, or STEHM.

The seven-tonne, 4.5-metre-tall microscope, with a footprint of six square metres, exposes subatomic objects at a magnification of up to 20 million times larger than what a human eye can see.

It uses an electron beam and holography techniques to study surfaces and the insides of materials. Gold atoms have already been viewed at a resolution of 35 picometres — a pictometre is one trillionth of a metre — and Humphrey said the microscope will be able to reach higher resolutions.

The microscope is in a $1.2-million specially designed basement room in the Bob Wright Centre Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences on campus. The temperature-controlled room protects the microscope from electromagnetic waves and vibration.

It was built in Japan by Hitachi and moved to Germany for further work before arriving in parts at UVic a year ago. It has been assembled and tested.

Workshops for users could start in the fall, Humphrey said. The cost to attend a workshop has not yet been determined. This microscope has attracted international attention.

Academics will be the main users, she said. Departments that will be interested include chemistry, electrical and mechanical engineering, bio-chemistry, biology and physics. The easiest way for students to get access to the microscope is to work in a lab with a professor, she said.

Businesses interested include Redlen Technologies, a Victoria firm manufacturing high-resolution radiation detectors used in applications such as nuclear cardiology and baggage scanning. Another UVic scientist is working on fuel cell research with Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems, Mercedes-Benz and the National Research Council.

“It has all kinds of new technologies in it,” Humphrey said. For example, when examining electrons, the better the vacuum, the better the resolution. The STEHM’s vacuum is between that of the moon and of space.

A typical transmission electron microscope has 20 electro-magnetic lenses to make the beam round. This one has 65, Humphrey said. Resolution improves with the roundness of a beam.

Its electron vortex beam allows researchers to move atoms around like a pair of tweezers.

The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, B.C. Knowledge Development Fund and UVic contributed $9.2 million. Hitachi contributed in-kind support.

Rodney Herring, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of UVic’s Advanced Microscopy Facility, spearheaded the move to acquire the microscope, starting his efforts in 2002.

“The STEHM will be used by local, regional, national and international scientists and engineers for a plethora of research projects relevant to the advancement of mankind,” said Herring, who has been testing the microscope.

“This enables us to see the unseen world.”

UVic is showcasing the microscope at the Microscopical Society of Canada conference running to Thursday. A public information session will be held Thursday from 4:30 to 5 p.m. at UVic’s Bob Wright Centre in Flury Hall.

On the Web: stehm.uvic.ca