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University of Manchester unveils world's most powerful optical microscope


March 2, 2011

Scientists from the University of Manchester have announced the development of the world's most powerful optical microscope (Image: University of Manchester)

Scientists from the University of Manchester have announced the development of the world's most powerful optical microscope (Image: University of Manchester)

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Scientists from the University of Manchester have announced the development of the world's most powerful optical microscope. Called the "microsphere nanoscope," the device captures non-diffracted near-field virtual images that are amplified via silica glass microspheres, which are tiny optically-transparent spherical particles. Those images are then relayed and further amplified by a standard optical microscope. The nanoscope reportedly allows users to see objects as small as 50 nanometers under normal lighting – this is 20 times smaller than what conventional optical microscopes can manage, and is in fact said to be beyond the theoretical limits of optical microscopy.

Electron microscopes are already capable of imaging extremely small objects, but unlike optical microscopes, they can only "see" the outside of structures such as cells. By contrast, the nanoscope should be capable of seeing inside human cells, and without requiring them to first be dyed. The device could also potentially be used to observe live viruses for the first time ever, which could ultimately lead to a better understanding of their causes and treatments.

While the nanoscope has already set a new record, the Manchester scientists believe there is no theoretical limit to the smallness of objects that it could allow users to see.

"Not only have we been able to see items of 50 nanometres, we believe that is just the start and we will be able to see far smaller items," said project co-leader Professor Lin Li. "Seeing inside a cell directly without dying and seeing living viruses directly could revolutionize the way cells are studied and allow us to examine closely viruses and biomedicine for the first time."

The research was just published in the journal Nature Communications.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

WheN will this end!!! Get this: VIRUSES ARE NOT ALIVE. They are NOT \'living things\' .. they are highly-organized particles assembled bY living things when, eg, the virus is allowed entry BY a living thing and that living cell ASSEMBLES the particles in large excess, driven by the DNA/RNA CODE sequences of the virus. Viruses do not metabolize, they canNOT reproduce themselves. The invaded CELL manufactures copies of a typical virus. It\'s with great dismay that I continually see even professional scientists communicating the idea that viruses are alive. Stop this unscientific nonsense!!!

j.a. , md


Ok, take a deep breath...don\'t you feel better? I\'m fairly certain the science community will recover from this terrible mistake. In truth, I don\'t believe that the author was intending to state that viruses are living, but that this new imaging method allows us to see viruses in a more natural state than previous methods have allowed. His wording was just unfortunate.


When they say \"live\" viruses, they mean active viruses. Electron microscopes can damage the tissues they scan.

Patrick Weddell

Actually the mistake in the article is the "theoretical limits...."statement. This microscope still operates within the limits for "farfield" light propagation. The quartz (silica) spheres in nearfield proximity to the optical radiation connect the nearfield to the farfield and it is these spheres which the "classical" microscope shown in the promo shot sees.

Distortion and coupling issues have not been characterized for these approaches nor do we have any sense from this article that the spheres themselves may be moved about to see different aspects of a subject. The claim that there is no limit to the resolution below 50 nm is so much hot air with no substance and readers should not believe it.

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