Electron microscopes reach limits of technology
The electron microscope has revolutionized the way we observe the very smallest parts of our observable universe. They’ve gotten very good over the years, but now they’ve gotten about as good as they can get.
Back in 2008, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California created a record-breaking microscope: the Transmission Electron Aberration-Corrected Microscope. This amazing piece of technology was able to peer into the microscopic world with a resolution of just 0.05 nanometers, or to put things into perspective, 0.000,000,000,05 meters. The researchers, proud of their accomplishment, set out to improve upon their microscope. They made a revised model by adding new lenses designed to remove blurriness caused by variations in electron energy.
Strangely, when the new lenses were installed, the blurriness got worse. It took years to figure out why this was, but now, scientists believe that the very parts designed to filter out distortions are the cause of the issues. Tubes of nickel-iron alloys, copper and stainless steel, which were used to hold and position the microscope’s corrective lenses, actually cause distortion. The distortion was always present, but until microscopes reached a resolution as high as the one in 2008, it wasn’t noticeable.
This is an electron microscope.
It is possible to filter out the distortion noise, but you can only remove so much of it, and the further in you zoom, the worse the blurriness gets. Unfortunately, the troublesome components are integral to the microscope, so until we find a way to completely overhaul the electron microscope, our present day technology may be as good as it gets. Which makes for disappointing news, and a pretty impressive feat for us to have accomplished, all at the same time.