Benchtop Electron Microscopes

The field of microscopy was truly revolutionized by the development of electron microscopy in the 1930s, resulting in the first commercial products at the end of that decade. Prior to this revolution, optical microscopy had developed to the point that instruments were running into theoretical limitations of spatial resolution. Features smaller than the wavelengths of visible light, on the order of a few hundred nanometers, could not be resolved using conventional optics. Making use of the quantum mechanical consequences of wave-particle duality, electron microscopes can resolve smaller features, since electrons can be accelerated to energies corresponding to wavelengths smaller than those of visible light. Of course, converting scattered electrons into an image is much more complicated than just looking through an eyepiece.

Although electron microscopy has certainly flourished, it does not compete with conventional light microscopy for many applications, mainly due to the expense and technical difficulty of the technique, which involves vacuum systems and often complicated sample preparation. While much of the electron microscopy market has been driven towards better resolution, with high-end multimillion dollar scopes now providing subangstrom resolution, the other end of the market has recently come alive due to the introduction of benchtop electron microscopes. These systems are designed to be inexpensive and easy to use, as well as relatively small and light (the imaging units weigh roughly the same as a person). Naturally, these systems are quite limited when compared to the cutting edge of electron microscopy; nevertheless, they still offer significant advantages over optical microscopes at a price that is not much more than that of a high-end optical microscope. As a result, they have opened up new markets, particularly in education, where end-users may have never considered an electron microscope.

This strategy is not completely new. In the 1950s, RCA introduced the EMT-1950, a tabletop microscope intended for use in high schools and colleges, while Tesla Brno produced the Tesla BS242. Delong Instruments is the modern descendant of Tesla Brno and continues to produce tabletop systems in the Czech Republic. Delong’s LVEM5 uses a low-voltage electron beam and can image in both transmission (TEM) and scanning (SEM) modes. Recently, the major electron microscopy vendors have shown interest in this area. In 2005, Hitachi High-Technologies introduced the TM-1000 in Japan, with exports beginning in 2006. This February, FEI brought out its product, the Phenom. Another new entrant in this field is Novelx, which has recently begun shipment of the mySEM, which is distinguished by its field emission electron source. The total market for benchtop electron microscopy was about $20 million in 2006. Given the new entrants and increased distribution of the Hitachi TM-1000, the market for 2007 is at least double that amount.

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