Oct. 23, 2008 It's the equivalent of taking the Hubble Telescope and aiming it at the atomic level rather than at stars and galaxies, says Gianluigi Botton, director of the new Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy at McMaster, site of the world's most advanced and powerful electron microscope.
The Titan 80-300 Cubed was installed at the University early in the summer, and since then it has been put through its paces to achieve unprecedented resolution, and is quickly gaining attention from the media and scientists who work in the field.
"We are certainly the first university in the world with a microscope of such a high calibre," says Botton. "With this microscope we can now easily identify atoms, measure their chemical state and even probe the electrons that bind them together."
Mo Elbestawi, McMaster's vice-president, Research and International Affairs, says the power of the microscope is making McMaster a hub for a fast growing field.
"The addition of the Titan 80-300 Cubed to the Centre's suite of microscopy instruments that include a Titan cryo-in situ solidifies Ontario's and Canada's lead in nanotechnology, and places us among the world's most advanced materials research institutions," says Elbestawi.
Last week, a group of international scientists came to campus to check out the Titan themselves.
"They were astounded by its capability, and by the fact that there is such support in this country for a venture of this magnitude," said John Capone, Dean of Science. "We should be very proud that McMaster has taken the initiative to secure this facility. There are many applications for it in life sciences. This particular instrument will enable many new discoveries in the areas of fundamental biological and physical sciences that will help us to better understand the nature of diseases and the development of new cures."
Dean of Engineering David Wilkinson sees the microscope through another lens.
"The Titan's ability to probe the structure of solid materials to the atomic level will have an impact on the development and commercialization of new technologies from biomedical devices to water quality monitoring and improved energy storage systems," said Wilkinson. "McMaster is committed to applying advanced research tools such as the Titan to the needs of our industrial partners, strengthening their ability to innovate and to compete globally."
Built in the Netherlands by the FEI Company at a cost of $15 million, the Titan is one of several instruments in the CCEM that will examine at the nano level hundreds of everyday products in order to understand, manipulate and improve their efficiency, says John Preston, director of McMaster's Brockhouse Institute for Materials Research.
The photo accompanying this story, for instance, is what the microscope's lens sees when it hones in on an aluminum alloy sample used for beverage cans. It was observed at an astounding 14-million times magnification. The scale bar is 1-nanometer or the equivalent of 1/50,000 of an average human hair.
The microscope will be used to help produce more efficient lighting and better solar cells, study proteins and drug-delivery materials to target cancers. It will assess atmospheric particulates, and help create lighter and stronger automotive materials, more effective cosmetics, and higher density memory storage for faster electronic and telecommunication devices.
Because we are at the very limits of what physics allows us to see -- "even breathing close to a regular microscope could affect the quality of the results," says Botton -- the new microscope is housed in a specially designed facility within the A.N. Bourns Science Building. It is able to withstand ultralow vibrations, low noise, and minute temperature fluctuations. Operation of the instrument is conducted in a separate room to ensure results of the highest quality.
The field of microscopy is undergoing fast and furious change. In the last several months alone, other microscopes have surfaced that will eventually trump the Titan's ability. Botton says that upgrades for the Titan are already in the works to maintain the microscope's premier position.
Funding for the microscope instrumentation was provided by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Innovation Trust, the Ministry of Research and Innovation of Ontario and the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, through a partnership with FEI and McMaster University.
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