Team creates most powerful optical microscope ever

Posted by Emma Woollacott

University of Manchester scientists say they've produced the world’s most powerful optical microscope, and that it could revolutionize the study of viruses and other diseases.

Standard optical microscopes can only see clearly down to a resolution of one micrometer - 0.001 millimeters.

But the new microscope can see objects 20 times smaller - indeed, it even breaks the theoretical limit of optical microscopes.

The trick is done by combining an optical microscope with a transparent microsphere, dubbed the 'microsphere nanoscope. And it means that scientists could now examine live viruses for the first time to see what causes them.

The new nano-imaging system is based on capturing optical, near-field virtual images, which are free from optical diffraction. It then amplifys them using a microsphere, a tiny spherical particle which is further relayed and amplified by a standard optical microscope.

"This is a world record in terms of how small an optical microscope can go by direct imaging under a light source covering the whole range of optical spectrum," says professor Lin Li.

"Not only have we been able to see items of 50 nanometers, we believe that is just the start and we will be able to see far smaller items.

Theoretically, there is no limit on how small an object we will be able to see."

He says that seeing inside a living cell and seeing living viruses directly could revolutionize the way cells are studied.

Other tiny objects the scientists plan to examine include anodized aluminum oxide nano-structures and nano-patterns on Blu-ray disks, not previously visible with an optical microscope.