Microscopy has never been the same since the advent of electron microscopes. With its ability to capture images of things the naked eye can’t see, it basically ushered a new era of scientific and academic discoveries. So don’t let electron microscope cost to discourage you from buying one. If you’re running a lab, make sure you have the best electron microscope you could afford.
That being said, electron microscopes have drawbacks as much as they have benefits. You should weigh these pros and cons first before you buy one. For your convenience, some of these advantages and disadvantages are listed below.
When it comes to producing high resolution images, electron microscopes are way better than those optical ones you see in most labs. In fact, they’re so powerful that they can even be used to analyze subcellular structures that could not be examined through standard fluorescence microscopy.
This high resolution is all because electron microscopes use beams of electrons instead of light when showing a specimen. As the wavelength of electrons is significantly smaller than that of photons, this allows electron microscopes to theoretically enjoy unlimited resolution. This enables them to detect, capture, and display more details when viewing a specimen.
However, keep in mind that the electron microscope’s resolution can be limited somewhat by a lens system. So check if the unit you’ll buy comes with lenses before checking out.
As you probably know, a microscope’s ability to magnify an object lies on its lenses. However, electron microscopes don’t come with any built-in lens systems (though some have detachable ones), so they don’t rely on them when magnifying an object. Instead, they’re equipped with a series of coil-shaped electromagnets that bend or refract electron beams in a similar way lenses do light.
Again, since electrons have smaller wavelengths than photons, they enable electron microscopes to enlarge images better. So while light microscopes can magnify specimens to up to 2000 times its size, their electron-using counterparts can do so at around 1 and 50 million times (depending on the unit you use).
Moreover, the size of an object anyone can see through light microscopes is limited to the smallest wavelength produced by visible light. That means they can’t examine certain things like atoms, molecules, and virus particles. By depending on electrons, electron microscopes are able to view these objects (and in fine detail no less).
An average light microscope comes with limited magnification control features. At best, they will only allow you to zoom in on an image for a few discrete levels. Take the microscopes found in high schools, universities, and even some laboratories for instance. If you take a look at their magnification controls, you’ll notice that most of them can only enlarge a specimen at levels of 10x, 100x, and 400x (with nothing in between).
Compare that with the magnification control offered by electron microscopes! Most units available in the market today offer wider (not to mention smoother) ranges of magnifications, with dials that allow you to change it whenever you wish. And since they use electromagnets rather than lenses to bend electrons, it’s quite easier to adjust their power supplies to zoom in or out of an image.
A microscope’s depth of field basically indicates how well its “eyesight” is. The larger it is, the bigger the area you can examine. And as far as depth of field goes, electron microscopes easily outclasses light microscopes every time.
This is once again because of the wavelength capabilities of electrons compared to photons. Due to its relatively large wavelength limitations, a light microscope’s ability to capture three-dimensional images are severely hampered (especially when examining extremely small objects). So even if one part of the image is focused and clear, the rest will probably be blurred.
In contrast, electron microscopes come with a depth of field that’s better to a tremendous (even ridiculous) degree. This allows them to show several focused two-dimensional layers of an object in one go, leading to better three-dimensional image quality.
Lastly, electron microscopes have many applications. Obviously, it can be used for scientific research as it allows scientists and researchers to view the structure of any specimen in greater detail. So it shouldn’t be surprising that electron microscopes are found in many research laboratories, nanotechnology centers and universities.
However, electron microscopes have other industrial, academic, and even forensic uses. For example, you can rely on it when characterizing and analyzing organic materials. This makes it great when studying natural resources. Meanwhile, forensic experts can use them when analyzing certain evidence, allowing them to help investigators when solving crimes and what-not. As for industrial applications, it can assist researchers when coming up with new products.
Like it or not, electron microscopes are expensive. So if you’re running a project with a limited budget, then this pricey piece of high-tech equipment may not be for you.
That being said, electron microscopes can be considered as a long term investment. By having one, you can seriously improve your ability to do research. So even if it’s expensive, you should still definitely buy one if you can.
Moreover, some electron microscopes come with more affordable price tags. So if you have to choose between a high-tech light microscope and a basic electron microscope, then better choose the latter.
Another downside of electron microscopes is its size. Despite its advanced technological features and capabilities, they’re still large and bulky. Not only will they take up a significant portion of space in your laboratory, but they’ll also be harder to move around. This will make it a bit challenging for you to bring it to different locations (assuming you do field research)
Moreover, things like magnetic fields and vibrations can disrupt an electron microscope’s performance since they’re highly sensitive. That means you must consider not only where you’ll place them in the lab, but also the other equipment you have there.
Not everyone can use electron microscopes. To fully harness its powers (and reap the rewards), you’ll need to undergo intensive training. That not only includes knowing how to operate the equipment, but also how to prepare the specimens you’ll analyze (more on this below).
Either way, you can’t learn how to use an electron microscope overnight. A lot of scientists say that it takes years to fully master the technology.
Electron microscopes also require tedious maintenance. To function properly, you need to make sure their voltage supply is stable, they have cool water circulating inside them, and the right amounts of current are passing through their electromagnetic coils.
Miss any of these things, and you risk your electron microscope getting overheated from all the electrons passing through it. This will lead to your equipment getting damaged and eventually destroyed.
Electrons can only be manipulated and controlled in a vacuum. As you obviously can’t examine live specimens inside an airless space, you can’t use an electron microscope to analyze them (much less capture a high-resolution image). This limits the microscope’s application somewhat, especially in the fields of biology and ecology.
Additionally, electron microscopes can only produce black and white images, even if it has a high resolution. If you want to present a colored image, then you have to add it afterwards.
An artifact in an electron microscope image is usually caused when the specimen is improperly prepared. It is usually due to some mechanical, chemical, ionic, or physical errors on the researcher’s part. To avoid having artifacts in your images, you need to invest time to learn the right ways to prepare sample specimens.
Like other pieces of laboratory equipment, electron microscopes come with its own advantages and disadvantages. Nevertheless, it’s one of the best additions you can make to your laboratory. So better consider getting one if you haven’t yet.
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