For those with the time and the money, there is a host of impressive professional-quality gadgets you can enjoy in your home: 3D Printers, telepresence robots, and now...an electron microscope. Priced around $60,000 (USD), Hitachi's TM-1000 electron microscope may be out of range for most families, but it's finding quite a niche for itself in schools, small research firms, industry, and museums. Most similarly capable products would costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sized to fit on a desktop and requiring almost none of the difficult prep normally associated with electron microscopy, the TM-1000 is easy enough for kids to use. In fact, Hitachi gave one to an elementary school in Miyagi Prefecture (Japan). Yet the device can still provide 10,000 X zoom. It's no wonder the microscope has sold 1000 units since 2005 and could be on its way to getting smaller and cheaper.
Even the most basic microscopy can have a big impact. We've seen how cell phone microscopes could revolutionize third world medicine. For education, the difference electron microscopes make won't be in lives saved, but in lives directed. Many countries, like the US and Japan, are seeing interests shift way from math and sciences. It's hard for physics, chemistry, and biology to compete with the flashier careers of fashion design, music, and finance. Early programs that show the "cooler" stuff in science could help direct kids to stay interested even as the curriculum gets tougher. Outside of education, the cheap TM-1000 can help small companies and research groups remain competitive with larger institutions.
Despite its small size and relatively friendly price tag, the TM-1000 comes with a fairly impressive set of specs. It can magnify from 20-10,000 times (40,000 with digital zoom), has a maximum sample diameter of 70 mm, and takes just three minutes to start up. All that, and it doesn't require any special sample prep (no liquid nitrogen), doesn't need a special stabilized table, and plugs into a normal wall outlet. Hooking it up to a standard laptop, the electron microscope records images that are beyond passable. If you want to see more examples of these pictures, check out the TM-1000 brochure.
Those interested in elemental analysis will be happy to find that the TM-1000 can also be expanded to perform energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS). I'm not as familiar with EDS to know if the TM-1000 performance is remarkable, but it has automatic element identification for atomic numbers 5 to 95 and, again, doesn't require any special sample prep. So, you could not only look at something in close range, you could figure out what it was made of. Pretty cool.
It's hard to know if the title of this post is misleading. Yes, $60,000 is well out of the range of any but the most avid of home scientists. Still, with miniaturization working as it does, and with 1000 units already sold, the TM-1000 could see a drop in price in the next five years. Or, if other microscope companies see the benefit of the market the TM-1000 is pursuing, we could have a competitive scope provided at a lower cost. Either way, I get the feeling that microscopy, like health monitoring or augmented reality, is a technology that will steadily make its way down the food chain from research to professionals to families. Maybe it's just my inner scientist talking, but a desktop electron microscope seems like a much better investment than a luxury car. Right?
[photo credit: Hitachi, Marine Reef International]