With little fanfare at the end of March, a one storey tall microscope housed in a vault beneath the University of Victoria zapped a fleck of gold, and a produced the world’s most highly magnified image.
The nondescript shot of gold atoms proved what engineering professor Rodney Herring had hoped – his scanning transmission electron holography microscope (STEHM) was indeed the most powerful in the world, even during its “tuning” phase.
Herring’s breakthrough is monumental in terms of fundamental science in Canada, although the margin of victory is exceedingly small.
The STEHM has resolved an image at 34 picometres, Herring says, beating out a 49 picometre image from the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California. A picometre is a trillionth of a metre, and a gold atom is about 332 picometres in diametre.
“For me it was a relief. I’d been telling everybody this could potentially have the best resolution and be the most powerful microscope in the world. But it wasn’t proven yet,” Herring said on Thursday. “Now we’ve got information down to 34 picometres and we aren’t done yet. We are still tuning the lab.”
The ultra-magnified image of gold atoms, on the order of 20 million times human sight, has yet to be published in a scientific journal, but Herring plans to present his work at an electron microscope conference at UVic in June. The UVic microscopy lab plans to officially launch the machine on June 17.
Whether the lab will have the machine fully ready for researchers remains to be seen. It had planned to open the STEHM last fall or winter, but its assembly and calibrations have been so maddeningly complicated, bringing it into operation has taken until now. Hitachi High-Technologies built most of the machine components in Japan, and Hitachi engineer David Hoyle has overseen the assembly at UVic.
“This project was so difficult Hitachi said it doesn’t want to build another one any day soon, so this will be the only one for 10 years or more,” Herring said. “It is a unique machine.
“We don’t know how good it is yet. We are in the training phase, the playing phase. We have to get used to it and find out how well it will do.”
UVic microscopy lab manager and biology professor Elaine Humphries is aiming to have the lab accepting researchers this summer, although they’ll need to tidy up the space, buy furniture and install workstations. They want to keep the cost low for visiting scientists booking time on the STEHM, she said.
“We want more researchers, we want to make it easy to use and cost effective,” Humphries said. “For me, more researchers means more grants, means more upgrades.”
She remarked that despite it being 4.5 metres tall, seven tonnes and effectively the most stable machine ever assembled, it is delicate and off limits to all but two or three people. “My job is to make it simple so people don’t screw up the microscope. If you don’t put the specimen in right, it will be down for eight hours.”
The machine itself is crammed with components that are among the most advanced technology in the world. It’s electron gun can spit out single electrons at a time, or send them down in a spiral pattern through its 65 lenses (also a world record), allowing the machine to “pick up” and manipulate atoms one at a time.
The electron beam moves through a 1.5 metre chamber with a vacuum nearly equivalent to deep space. The moon has more of an atmosphere. The materials used to achieve this is a trade secret.
“One problem with electrons is they don’t go through air easily. They get bounced around so you have to pump the air out. So a better vacuum means better resolution,” Humphries said.
The machine also exploits weird quantum properties of particles – wires called bi-prisms can “split” single electrons into two pieces, since all particles also exist as waves. This will come in handy for people studying quantum computing or cutting-edge nano technology.
“From a physics point of view, its the perfect machine to study the structure of the atom,” Herring said. “There’s lots of mystery left with atoms. There’s lots of open questions in the models of chemistry on atomic bonding.”
The machine rests on a concrete foundation separate from the Bob Wright Centre in an over-pressured, vibration absorbing chamber. Proprietary metal-composite technology in the machine also dampens any and all external noise from passing cars to passing clouds. Hoyle, the Hitachi engineer, showed the machine could produce coherent image of gold atoms over a long exposure.
“David (Hoyle) took a picture for 120 seconds. It blew my mind. Taking a picture of atomic structure for 120 seconds is like wow,” Humphries remarked.
The potential scientific breakthroughs for such a machine are yet to be fully contemplated. It will be able to probe and create 3D images of items like brain neurons and their synapses and muscle tissue, or probe microchip circuitry assembled at nearly the atomic level.
Herring said the machine could create “pico technology,” where devices would be made one atom at a time. Facets of physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, materials science and electronics could all see novel and unpredicted advances with the big microscope.
Chemistry professor Alex Brolo oversees nano technology development related to items like medical sensors and solar cells at UVic, and said the STEHM will be critical in creating more precise devices, and without having to use powerful electron microscopes elsewhere in Canada.
“It’s a big advantage for us looking at nano materials and looking at the position of atoms. This microscope increases that capability and does things we weren’t able to do before,” Brolo said. “The level of resolution and characterization is big for us and will bring breakthroughs for our research.”
For Herring, the project been a decade of pulling together at least $20 million in funding and convincing industry partners that the machine was technically possible – many were convinced it wasn’t. Gleaming and tall, with a few inches to spare in the underground vault, he’s proud of the machine he designed.
“It’s taken 11 years. It’s beautiful. For me it’s a work of beauty,” he said. “It’s performed beyond expectations. All of the effort has paid off with an ultra-high resolution, 34 picometre (machine). We have the best microscope in the world.”