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'Microscope' is a general name given to any apparatus used to inspect very small regions of space1. Normally, when talking about microscopes, people, by default, think of the 'optical microscope'. This is the most common type, well-known from biology classes - many people don't even know that there are other kinds. This entry will present and compare these types of microscopes briefly summing up how they work. For more detailed information on each type of microscope please refer to the corresponding entries.

Types of Microscopes

Optical Microscopes

Optical microscopes are the most common microscopes. It is the typical laboratory prop seen in cartoons, known from school and displaying the unique characteristic hallmark shape of a microscope. These microscopes work like a magnifying-glass. They consist of an intelligent arrangement of optical elements (mostly lenses and mirrors) which lead the light coming from the small, observed object directly into the observer's eye or any other light detecting device (such as a film or a digital camera). For that reason these microscopes are also called 'light' microscopes. The optical path of the light, and thus the magnification effect, is characterised by the lenses, and are subject to the laws of optics.

The main advantage of optical microscopes is that they work to the WYSIWYG principle - 'What You See Is What You Get' - literally. Optical microscopes are non-invasive (that is, they don't exchange matter with the observed object) and are not limited to surfaces of materials. The interior of any transparent body, like cells or crystals can be observed. Optical microscopy is also the oldest form of microscopy, for which reason these microscopes are at a final development stage. They are broadly available and do not require techy gizmos (like piezo scanners or electron beams) to work, not even electric power. The most serious limitation is the resolution limit which is, in the best case, roughly half the wavelength of the light used2, and worsened by the quality of the lenses used. The resolution of a good optical microscope is typically in the order of 300-400 nanometres.

Electron Microscopes

Electron microscopes use beams of electrons instead of light, and magnets instead of lenses, but apart from that, the working principle is more or less the same as in the optical microscope because in a certain way, electrons behave like light. One advantage of using electrons instead of photons (ie, light) is that the electrons have a wavelength that is thousands of times smaller. This means that the resolution should be thousands of times better than in the optical microscope. In practice a common electron microscope has a resolution of some 500 picometres3.

This tremendous improvement in resolution is the main advantage of the electron microscope. The main limitations are:

  • Electrons cannot readily be routed into the observer's eye, for which reason the whole detection must be steered electronically. Electrons cannot be routed into living organisms without causing undesirable side-effects. For that reason it is very difficult to inspect living organisms using electron microscopes.

  • The inspected objects must be electrically conducting or, at least, be covered with a thin conducting layer in order to achieve images with best resolution. This requires careful probe preparation.

  • Another serious limitation of electron microscopes is that the observation is restricted to the surface (or at least a very thin layer of some 100 nanometres thickness). Scanning electron microscopes obtain images as a product of electrons that are sort-of 'reflected' by the surface of the object. A transmission electron microscope will only 'shine through' about 100 or so nanometres of material (cutting objects in slices as thin as this is absolutely not an easy procedure).

Scanning Probe Microscopes

Scanning probe microscopes. The invention of small piezo motors made it possible to scan tiny needles or tips over very small regions (tens of picometres) of space. If a tip is sensitive and sharp enough to access these regions of space, then they can be used as probes that detect very faint differences of the scanned surface's properties. These differences can be converted into graphic images that look like a topographical map of the studied surface. There are two famous kinds of scanning probe techniques:

  • The scanning force microscopy (SFM) which detects the bending of a very sharp tip on a cantilever, thus relaying topological information from the object's surface (it works quite like the old vinyl record-players).

  • The scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) which detects very small currents which in a classic sense shouldn't be flowing between a sharp tip and the object's surface, because they are separated by a very small gap (in the order of some nanometres)4.

Additional to these two techniques there are more, less known and more complex scanning probe techniques, which all have the small scanning piezo-motor in common.

The main advantage of these methods is that they can achieve atomic resolution. That is every single atom of a surface can be 'sensed'. Furthermore, these needles can be used to plough or scratch the surface creating very small structures, which is interesting for the field of nanoscience. The main disadvantage of the scanning probe methods is their limitation to surfaces - to conducting surfaces in the case of the STM - and the complicated probe-preparation procedure.

1Micro is the Greek word for small and scopia the Greek verb for 'to view'.2Visible light has a wavelength ranging from 400 nm (violet) to 800 nm (deep red).3That's where the particle character of electrons starts to interfere. Electrons are big and reactive in comparison with photons. For that reason the volume affected by the impact of an electron is much bigger than the volume it should address were it as unreactive and massless as a photon. This is equivalent to a loss in resolution.4One of the weirdest effects of quantum mechanics, where electrons tunnel through space, is responsible for that.

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