Archived — University of Victoria is now home to the world’s most powerful microscope

The STEHM microscope gives Uvic research a capacity no other institution has—enabling researchers to look at things as small as individual atoms of gold. Atomic resolution image of a gold crystal specimen with a hole in the centre. The atomic positions of gold atoms are seen as spots formed in patterns of increasing thickness moving away from the hole at the centre of the crystal.

Photo Credit: STEHM Laboratory, University of Victoria

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

The Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope (STEHM) was made possible, in part, by a Government of Canada investment through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). This new 7-tonne, 4.5-metre-tall microscope uses an electron beam and holography techniques to study surfaces and even the insides of materials.

"The STEHM enables us to see the unseen world," says Dr. Rodney Herring, a professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Director of UVic's Advanced Microscopy Facility. Dr Herring received funding from the CFI, in 2006, to build the first ever STEHM in partnership with Hitachi.

After 11 years in development, UVic officially completed the STEHM in March 2013, enabling researchers to unlock a world of hidden possibilities. The STEHM's ability to magnify up to 30 million times will enable transformative research in a number of fields, including medical and environmental diagnostics, computers, alternative energy and manufacturing.

"We have bragging rights. We have the highest resolution in the world," added Dr. Elaine Humphrey, Manager of UVic's Advanced Microscopy Facility. With the STEHM, individual gold atoms were viewed at a resolution of 35 picometres (the previous best was 49 picometres), which is 10 times better than a standard electron microscope and 20 million times larger than what the human eye can see. This added clarity may make it possible to see electron bonds—the electrons binding the atoms together.

Atomic resolution image of barium titanate, a dielectric, multi-purpose material used in capacitors, transducers and microphones. The high-contrast, bright spots indicate a high proportion of barium and titanium atoms while the muted, low-contrast spots indicate a predominance of oxygen atoms.

Photo Credit: STEHM Laboratory, University of Victoria

Dr. Humphrey continued: "It has all kinds of new technologies in it. For example, the STEHM's vacuum is between that of the moon and of space and when examining electrons, the better the vacuum, the better the resolution. A typical transmission electron microscope has 20 electromagnetic lenses to make the beam round. This one has 65." Resolution improves with the roundness of a beam, which allows researchers to move atoms around as though held with a pair of tweezers.

The microscope is housed in a specially designed $1.2-million room in the Bob Wright Centre—Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. The temperature-controlled room protects the microscope from electromagnetic waves and vibration. Information about the STEHM development process and installation as well as accompanying images are available on the UVic website.

Eager academics, students and businesses line up

Once the STEHM is fully ready, academics will be its main users, with national and international scientists—chemists, electrical and mechanical engineers, biochemists, biologists and physicists—being first in line. Workshops to train scientists, who work in fields ranging from medicine to engineering, on how to use the ultrasensitive microscope are expected to start this fall. Students will also have access to the microscope, especially those doing lab work with professors.

Businesses interested in the STEHM include Redlen Technologies, a Victoria firm that manufactures high-resolution radiation detectors used in applications such as nuclear cardiology and baggage scanning, as well as Ballard Power Systems, Mercedes-Benz and the National Research Council of Canada, which are collaborating with a UVic scientist on his fuel cell research.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation, the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund and UVic contributed $9.2 million. Hitachi built the microscope and also contributed in-kind support.

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