Today marks the official launch of the University of Victoria's new advanced microscopy facility. It was actually installed in March, and tested out by imaging gold flecks, but it has taken several months to complete all of the installation and calibration.

The new device is actually a 4.5 meter tall microscope, called a  scanning transmission electron holography microscope (STEHM). It uses quantum mechanical tunneling of electrons, whose flux depends on the material it is passing through, and the fraction of electrons that pass through the sample determine its properties. By recording the flux of tunneled electrons at each point on a sensor, this microscope can produce images at a greater precision than any other in the world.

This STEHM can create images at widths of 34 picometers, with a picometer measuring one trillionth of a meter, although as it is refined the precision may be increased. The second most precise microscope is at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California, and can only measure down to 49 picometers. For comparison, metal atoms are a few hundred picometers in diameter.

The university intends to make it available to visiting research staff sometime this year. (Although it is so precisely tuned that any mistake in inserting a sample for imaging can damage the calibration and require a day or more to reset, and so it is likely that visiting researchers will instead submit their samples to laboratory staff who are experienced at working with the machine)

Aside from imaging atoms, the STEHM has the potential to create breakthroughs in many branches of science and technology. It can image individual atoms in complex molecules, it can aid in the construction of nanotechnology for science or medical purposes, and it can even be used to study quantum mechanical systems and quantum computing.

As the great theorist Feynman once said, there is plenty of room at the bottom (referencing nanotechnology of course). And with this new instrument, the University is poised to become a leader in the field.