Helium microscope helps to study samples without damaging them

MELBOURNE(PTI):The first scanning helium microscope has been built by Australian researchers who feel it could “open doors” for many new discoveries by allowing scientists to scrutinise materials without disturbing them.

A spider’s fang observed under a scanning helium microscope. —PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE

Paul Dastoor of University of Newcastle, who has been working on the scanning helium microscope (SHeM) for two decades, said the new device would enable scientists to study human, animal and plant samples, as well as computer chips and pharmaceutical drugs, without damaging or changing them.

Mr. Dastoor said the development means samples would be analysed in their true state for the first time ever and every time a new microscope was developed, there had been enormous scientific advances.

Key industries

“We wouldn’t know anything about bacteria without the development of the optical microscope, we wouldn’t know anything about nanotechnology without the development of the electron microscope. What exactly will the new helium microscope tell us? We don’t know yet. What will it open the doors to? We don’t know yet, but it will open doors,” he said.

The scientist said SHeM could be useful in major industries such as solar energy, defence, explosives and information technology. “The new device is expected to pave the way for many new discoveries because it gives new insights into structures at a microscopic level,” he said.

Mr. Dastoor led the team of researchers from the University of Newcastle, and collaborated with scientists from England’s University of Cambridge.

“We’re opening a window onto a new scientific world,” Mr. Dastoor said, adding that scientists would be able to see much smaller objects with a much higher resolution.

He said the ground-breaking technology may help find ways of removing carbon monoxide from exhaust gases.

The SHeM could also help with the clean-up of toxic or even radioactive spills, without harming the surrounding flora or fauna, he pointed out.

“Defence experts will be interested because it could lead to the development of stealth technology and new explosives,” Mr. Dastoor said, adding that the possibilities were endless in the areas of biological sciences, pharmaceuticals, and delicate materials.

“We work a lot with explosives — you don’t want to put an explosive in an energetic microscope. We really think we’re opening a window onto a new scientific world,” he said, “When you see the first image coming out on an instrument you’ve only designed on paper, it’s certainly time for the happy dance,” he said.