A closer look at the mega-microscopes

From medics to engineers - these days, they all want mega-microscopes. Julia Pierce takes a closer look

Walking into the home of Titan, Britain's newest super-microscope, is an experience that takes you back in time, shrinks you to the size of a child and places you before your old school science bench. At around 15 metres high, the machine (right) dwarfs everything in the room. For an instrument that deals with the exceedingly small, this microscope is impressively large.

Buried deep within the bowels of Imperial College London, it looks like any other microscope - just 10 times bigger. At the base of the device, in front of its viewing chamber that contains the sample being examined, sits one of the department's researchers. Two screens beside him display images of the same object at different magnifications. The first screen, magnifying it around 10 million times, shows an image that looks suspiciously like frogspawn. On the second screen, magnified by 25 million times, it resembles glittering spider gossamer. I ask what patterns I'm looking at. "It's a carbon nanotube," the researcher says, waggling the sample in the chamber. Looking at the point upon which the instrument is focused I can just about make out what looks like a tiny strand of hair.

This ability to look inside materials and, more importantly, know what you are seeing, is very important. Billed as the world's most powerful commercially available microscope by its manufacturer, FEI, the Titan 80-300 allows researchers to focus a fine electron probe on a material with a diameter of less than 0.14 nanometres - that's fourteen-hundredths of one billionth of a metre. When you think a typical human hair is 80,000 nanometres in diameter, that's pretty small. This microscope lets you see how each atom behaves and why.

Carbon nanotubes are tiny cylinders of carbon about 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They have remarkable properties, including the greatest strength of any known material - twice as hard as diamond. If the way the atoms within them join together can be understood and controlled researchers may be able to produce the materials to build items such as the next generation of supercomputer.

Titan and its commercial cohorts can be bought by any lab and installed to order for £2.4m - a small price compared with the costs that would have been encountered just a few years ago. "Universities are starting to buy equipment that is now even luring key scientists back from the States," adds Pete Lander, assistant general manager at JEOL (UK). "Two world-class scientists recently came over to work at York from the US. They said they wanted to work on a powerful microscope but the only way to get funds to do this was to come back to the UK."

There is only one such Titan in Britain, and it is also the only microscope in Britain - and one of only a handful in the world - featuring a monochromator. Basically, this is the bit that tells you what sort of atom you are looking at. "Imagine the cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon," says Dr David McComb, reader in materials characterisation at Imperial's department of materials. "If you put white light through a glass prism it splits into different colours. Add a filter and you can pick a colour and single it out to work with." In the Titan, the monochromator takes the place of the prism, so you can pick out electrons with a particular energy range to hit the sample. The energy of the electrons changes when they hit the sample. Measuring that change tells you what has been in their way.

Such equipment is also vulnerable. Imperial spent a further £500,000 on the room that houses Titan. Systems control temperature fluctuations to within 0.2 degrees. It is also shielded to minimise vibration and eliminate stray magnetic fields. "I can't think of any other large microscope that's been placed in a big city," says McComb.

Imperial College is already looking into common diseases and it has earmarked this as one of Titan's first projects. Patients suffering from degenerative brain diseases process iron abnormally, leaving iron nanoparticles in their brain tissue. Discovering how iron atoms affect the tissue surrounding them could allow the development of new treatments to delay or even halt these conditions. Observing the way in which atoms stray from one material to another during fuel cell operation could also help scientists design longer-lasting versions to power pollution-free buses, trains and cars.

Rival manufacturers, however, are keen to stress that better things are on the way. Several goals remain, such as the ability to view atoms in 3D in live biological material. This would allow researchers to see exactly what happens to the very basic tissue of a human organ the second it is hit by a chemical, increasing their understanding of why some drugs work and some don't.

"Competition is good," adds Paul Ansell, electron microscope sales and marketing manager at Hitachi High-Technologies, which has just installed one of its latest models at the University of Surrey. "It means researchers can now have the choice to select a laboratory offering exactly what they need."

Leaving Titan and stepping out on to the street, it's hard to believe so much amazing science is hidden beneath my feet. But not quite as astonishing as the patterns revealed in that nanotube.

See the big picture

If you haven't got £2.4m to spare this Christmas, what can you buy on a more reasonable budget and, more importantly, what will your new toy let you see?

Under £10

At £8, the Early Learning Centre's Zoom Microscope isn't exactly top of the range, but by magnifying objects by up to 100 times, it might inspire under-10s to look more closely at their world.

Under £50

The University of Cambridge's pretty basic Precision Microscope (£34.99) gives you up to x300 magnification and comes with a list of experiments.

Under £100

£71.99 buys the Digital Blue QX5 Digital Microscope. This magnifies objects by up to 200 times, which you can view on your PC. You can take photos of your samples and turn them into posters or e-mail them to friends.

Under £200

For £89.95 plus an extra £95 for a computer connection you can buy a real scientific instrument. The RM1 provides up to x600 magnification. It comes with a gruesome pack that includes a rat flea, liver fluke and various types of animal bloods.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Administrator

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are a world leadin...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her in Latakia
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report