So, yesterday I ventured down to the post-industrial semi-wasteland of Chicago’s south side … I believe the neighborhood’s officially “Pilsen” … in an attempt to find the South Side Hackerspace (it’s in a massive old factory building, with the entrance to that part of the building hidden around back – good thing I was running early!). I’d gotten a heads-up via a mailing from EventBrite that there was a thing happening there involving a desktop-model scanning electron microscope. How often do you get to mess around with one of those?
After all, it used to be (not very long ago) that a scanning electron microscope was a piece of machinery that took up a room and here this one was not much bigger than a couple of desktop computers together, with a sample loading (and vacuum) system that for all the world looked like a single-serving coffee maker.
The person running the demo was Diane P. Hickey-Davis, Ph.D, who is the local rep for Nanoscience Instruments makers of the “Phenom” line of these desktop systems. I take it that the model she’d brought with her was their top-of-the-line unit, as there was a high-res visual microscope built in with the electron unit (see the upper right corner of the screen grab below – which will get bigger if your click on it), and it was bundled with a second screen/processor that did elemental analysis based on the scattering of the electron beam … this was fascinating, as it showed “spikes” of the main elements, plus had a periodic table that you could click on to see how much, if any, of a particular element might be in the sample being scanned. On top of this there was a function that would create color-gradient “topographic” images to get the specifics on the depth of particular features … this was used to look at the tiny initials of the sculptor carved in under Lincoln’s shoulder on the penny … very cool.
During the course of the evening we looked at a wide array of materials, from beach sand, to hairs, limpet shells, shark teeth, computer chips, dried peppers, a dead cricket, a spent bullet shell, and even a tiny Darth Vader (whose imperial logo’s paint made for an interesting elemental analysis). One of the Hackerspace guys brought his 5-year-old son, and he was allowed to “drive the machine” (the Darth Vader figurine was his suggestion) … highlighting the concept that the system is VERY easy to operate (and as Dr. Hiceky kept noting “you’re not going to break it”).
I asked Diane Hickey to do a basic walk-through on the system for me, and here’s that:
In case you were wondering what was on-screen in the video … here’s a screengrab … which is one of my beard hairs!
While this isn’t necessarily a “green” story, it’s another example of how equipment that used to require massive amounts of space and energy (earlier versions needed to be kept cryogenically cooled and required large vacuum chambers) are now appearing in desktop form, requiring much less power (the vacuum chamber for this machine is only about the size of one of those coffee machine inserts, so it’s easy to evacuate). While I don’t have a gauge for how much the room-sized versions of these used to cost (I’m guessing in the millions), the basic unit here runs less than a mid-level BMW, and the bells-and-whistles version comes in at only what one would be putting out for a top-of-the line BMW … which means that a LOT of institutions who could never have previously hoped to have been able to use a scanning electron microscope (but would have loved to have had one), could now fairly reasonably do a Kickstarter/IndieGoGo campaign to fund it. That’s a big change.
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