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An Electron Microscope For Your Home? 125

CuteSteveJobs writes "Could microscopy be in for a new golden age? Wired previewed the desktop-sized Hitachi TM-1000 Electron Microscope a while back. Light microscopes can magnify up to 400X (1,000X at lower quality) — just enough to see bacteria as shapes — but this one offers 20X to 10,000X, giving some amazing pictures. Unlike traditional electron microscopes, this one plugs into a domestic power socket and specimens don't need any special preparation; it's point-and-shoot, much like your typical digital camera. So easy a grade-schooler could use it, and earlier this year that's what happened: The kids at Iwanuma Elementary School in Miyagi, Japan got their own electron microscope. At $60,000, you'll have to give up on the BMW, but the hope is with economy of scale (so far 1,000 have sold) and miniaturization, the price will continue to drop. The only bad news? It runs XP."
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An Electron Microscope For Your Home?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 11, 2009 @09:36AM (#29710731)

    I don't know about home users, but this is something a university could justify purchasing several of for an undergraduate lab. Biology could have been even more interesting.

  • For Your Home? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by wjh31 ( 1372867 ) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @09:44AM (#29710775) Homepage
    At 60,000USD, thats not for your home, its just a worktop Electron microscope for labs.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 11, 2009 @10:10AM (#29710899)

    I am curious what this would imply as far as security involving micro-controllers goes. Some companies (particularly cable/sat providers would be hit the worst) use technologies like smart cards as a means of access controls. One of the biggest barriers to breaking these is how expensive it is to be able to reverse engineer one of these cards by means of a SEM. This would dramatically undermine that particular barrier.

  • by elashish14 ( 1302231 ) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (4clacforp)> on Sunday October 11, 2009 @11:13AM (#29711183)

    There's a lot of considerations that go into making and operating an electron microscope. For one thing, they usually require a pretty high vacuum which always has to be on causing some pretty how power costs.

    Plus they also have to be isolated from vibrations in the ground, so even if it's not that sensitive, it still probably would only work if installed in the basement of a suburban house; operating that thing near the top of a multi-story apartment complex probably would cause some sort of calibration errors. The TEMs that I've seen were built on top of some huge concrete blocks (at least 10 feet deep) that were isolated from the surrounding so trucks could pass by without disturbing them.

    Don't see why it's worth $60,000 when you can give an entire class of about 100 a regular compound light microscope for everyone to use, as long as it's purely for educational purposes. Nevertheless, it's a pretty cool engineering feat, and I guess someone somewhere could find it practical.

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @11:24AM (#29711245)

    Really, I'm thinking 60k is "payable" if you're really into the stuff.

    I have some knowledge of the microscopy hobby. Also ham radio. Both are similar in that ultra high cost options are available, and similar in that prices don't drop, at least not like prices in the computer/electronics hobby.

    It is considered "normal" to buy a $1000 radio or microscope, use it for a few years, sell for about $800, upgrade to the $2000 model, use it a few years, sell for maybe $1800, buy the $3000 model ... repeat for a few decades, next thing you know, "old" people of rather average income are operating $10000 of radio gear, $20000 telescopes, cameras, microscopes, etc.

    This is very difficult for computer people to wrap their heads around, since last years video card is merely a paperweight today, etc. And vice versa, good luck convincing a ham radio guy that his five old PC will not sell for even 50% of its new price.

    If computer prices were this stable, I'm sure I would easily have a $60K computer system by now.

  • by Jaime2 ( 824950 ) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @11:57AM (#29711401)
    I was a TEM operator about twenty years ago. We didn't have any special floor and the vacuum was drawn with an Edwards High Vacuum roughing pump that plugged into the wall and the final vacuum (10E-7 torr) was drawn with the internal diffusion pump. It was a Hitachi 600AB that could do about 100,000X magnification, but we only used it to about 4,000X or so for our purposes. This was a two ton, seven foot tall scope. We didn't use it for high magnification, but for x-ray diffraction crystallography and EDS identification of elemental composition. We also has a Phillips SEM. I'm sure we paid far less than $60,000 for it -- we bought it used. Even the TEM, which we bought brand new, was only about four times as expensive as the TM-1000. However, neither of these scopes could ever be used in most homes due to power requirements and their sheer size.

    I think the big deal here is that this one (the TM-1000) fits on a table top, weighs 200 pounds, and doesn't require liquid nitrogen. BTW, the EDS detector available for this unit is pretty lame and is only able to detect elements from sodium up.
  • Re:For Your Home? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @01:42PM (#29712039)

    At 60,000USD, thats not for your home, its just a worktop Electron microscope for labs.

    I also wonder if that includes the price of sputter coating, critical point dryer and all the other stuff you might want to be able to see biological stuff.

    The summary did mention though that economies of scale might bring that down. The article points out that $60k is already a significant drop from the hundreds of thousands other SEMs cost. Size is also an issue, this rig won't take up half a room, making it more "for the home" than others. Then again if you're willing to spend that much on your own microscope, you're more likely to be willing to sacrifice half your garage or have empty rooms in your mansion already.

    Probably a bigger market for it would be individual labs who couldn't quite justify buying their own SEM machines before this. My lab doesn't do SEM, but we do have our own fluorescent microscope that is easily $60,000. A good confocal microscope on the other hand is in the hundred thousands range, we use a shared confocal and often have to wait days for it. $60k is doable for many labs, but 100-200K is often an entire grant.

  • by Ant P. ( 974313 ) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @03:42PM (#29712681) Homepage

    That's possibly the best example of security through obscurity falling flat on its face I've ever seen.

All science is either physics or stamp collecting. -- Ernest Rutherford