New microscope technology possible game-changer

By Gemma Chilton 13 May 2016
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Australian scientists have developed a prototype microscope using world-first technology that could have massive implications across a number of fields.

AFTER 20 YEARS of painstaking development in Australia and the UK, scientists have finally created a prototype of a new kind of microscope – the only one in the world that will enable the study of organic samples in their unchanged state.

The research was published in the journal Nature earlier this year, with the first-ever high-resolution photos from the microscope released this week – showing a butterfly wing, spider’s fang and the eye of a honey bee like they’ve never been seen before.

They might not look like much to the untrained eye, but to scientists this new way of seeing the microscopic world could be game-changing.

The new technology uses helium to image samples instead of traditional technologies that use light or electrons. This makes all the difference.

“Delicate structures such as biological samples suffer degradation under existing microscopes, which means the very act of observation destroys or changes the properties of the samples we are trying to study – it’s quite a paradox,” said Professor Paul Dastoor, who led the team of Australian scientists from the University of Newcastle that developed the microscope prototype at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

spider fang new microscope technology

A spider fang under the new microscope prototype. (Image courtesy University of Newcastle)

honey bee new microscope technology

The eye of a honey bee. (Image courtesy University of Newcastle)

The use of helium – which is chemically, electrically and magnetically inert – in the new microscope enables the study of many surfaces for the first time, explained Paul. Previously, delicate samples were either damaged by existing microscope technology, or to prevent this they had to be coated with a protective film such as gold – either way, the sample was unable to be viewed in its “true, unmasked state”. 

According to the researchers, the potential applications of this new technology are wide and varied, from medicine to sustainability, solar cell technology and even defence.

“We are extremely surprised at all the extra information that is available via this technology,” said Paul. 

For example, the ability to study parasites, bacteria and cell cultures in their original state could have significant implications in medicine and the pharmaceuticals industry.

“We’ve already been able to clearly see the actual structure of a membrane because the helium microscope gives detail not previously available,” said Paul. “A traditional microscope sees straight through the membrane. We’ve been able to look at the actual structure. The medical and pharmaceutical applications are very exciting.”

Paul Dastoor University of Newcastle with new microscope technology

Professor Paul Dastoor (pictured) led the team of Australian scientists who developed the first prototype of the new microscope in England. (Image courtesy University of Newcastle)

Similarly, many new solar cells suffer “degradation or even wholesale destruction,” under the “energetic beams” of traditional microscopes, Paul said. “The new technology allows us to observe and therefore optimise and progress solar cell technology.”

The so-called scanning helium microscope (SHeM) has been in development for the past 20 years, with scientists led by Paul at the University of Newcastle in NSW collaborating with researchers from the University of Cambridge. However, it took just seven weeks for the Australian researchers to develop the first fully working prototype of the microscope over in the UK – and a further two years to develop and refine the microscope back in Australia.

“Our next goal is to build a smaller version of this groundbreaking microscope that will open the door to allow many other scientists to access information they couldn’t get previously,” said Paul.