A WORLD-FIRST helium microscope developed by a team of Newcastle researchers has the potential to revolutionise microscopy and open a window to new scientific discoveries.
The Scanning Helium Microsope (SHeM) uses a beam of helium atoms as a probe, differing from conventional microscopes that use light or electrons.
Because helium is low-energy and has no electrical charge, it can be used to view delicate samples without risk of damage, and also has the potential to allow scientists to view electrical circuits while they are running.
“I think we are at the dawn of a new microscopy,” said Professor Paul Dastoor, who led a team of University of Newcastle PhD students who created the instrument in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Cambridge.
“We believe it could well become the sort of tool that every laboratory will want.”
“Helium is able to image sensitive structures with zero damage as it is chemically, electrically and magnetically inert, so it will allow us to study many surfaces for the very first time.”
The helium microscope has been a dream of Professor Dastoor’s for more than 20 years, since he was a PhD student at Cambridge studying helium atom scattering. The prototype was built in 2011 in just seven weeks, then the Newcastle team spent two years refining it.
“It required new technology to be developed for nearly every part,” said Joel Martens, who with Matthew Barr and Adam Fahy created the instrument.
The SHeM provides a different view of delicate biological samples and also negates the need for them to be coated with a protective film to prevent damage. It will also be useful in the study of explosives, which can become unstable under conventional microscopes.
A smaller, commercial version of the SHeM will be developed over the next 18 months. It is expected to have application in fields as diverse as biological studies, computer technology, defence manufacturing and solar cells.
“Every time you develop a new microscope, you open a new window into the scientific world, and every time we have new window, we make new discoveries.” Professor Dastoor said.
“We wouldn't have known anything about bacteria or microbes without the invention of the original light microscope. We wouldn't know anything about the technology and nanotechnology of structures today without the electron microscope.
“We believe the SHeM will open another new window for us.”