Microscopy Types & Applications

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What is microscopy and how do we use it? Learn about the different types of microscopes and the ways we use them for practical purposes. Take a quiz and see what you've learned

Types of Microscopes

When you think of microscopes, do you think of your high school lab class with a microscope on every bench? It's fun to look at hairs and drops of pond water in a microscope, but did you know there are other types of microscopes so powerful we can see an atom? What does the world at large use microscopes for anyway? First, let's talk about the different types of microscopy.

Microscopy is the act of using a microscope to view tiny things that cannot be seen with the unaided eye. There are three main types of microscopy: optical microscopy, scanning probe microscopy, and electron microscopy.

Optical microscopes bounce light off the thing you're trying to view. They use diffraction, reflection, or refraction to magnify the image until you can see it. The first kind of microscope ever built was an optical microscope. In fact, you can build a microscope with a simple system of lenses, much like a powerful magnifying glass. There are lots of types of light based microscopy: bright-field, dark-field, fluorescence, phase contrast, and others. But they all have the same goal.

Optical microscope
Optical microscope

Scanning probe microscopy involves running a physical probe across the surface of the material. It's the equivalent of a blind person feeling their way around an object. The probe has a very sharp apex that determines how high a resolution can be produced. To create images of the atom, the apex must be the size of a single atom itself.

Image of a gold surface using a scanning tunneling microscope used in scanning probe microscopy
gold spm image

Electron microscopy creates an image by firing electrons at an object. The electrons bounce off the object and return to a sensor which creates an image from the data. This is the way we were first able to create images of the atom itself. The benefit of an electron microscope is that electrons have a wavelength 100,000 times smaller than light, so that increases the resolution of the image. This is what really makes it possible to view an atom.

Electron microscope
Electron microscope

Together all these techniques allow us to create images of some of the smallest things in our universe, things we could never normally see with our own eyes.

Applications of Microscopes

The main application of microscopes is scientific research. It allows us to see things we could never see before. We use them in biology to study cells (optical/light microscopes), develop nanotechnology like carbon nanotubes (electron and scanning probe), and pathology to understand how diseases work. We have a much better understanding of the human body thanks to microscopes, and that has led to treatments for all kinds of diseases. In fact, microscopes is even used directly in medicine to analyze biological samples from patients.

Cancer cells being attacked by macrophages, seen on an electron microscope
Cancer cells being attacked by macrophages, seen on a microscope

Microscopes can also be used outside of the pursuit of knowledge itself. Microscopes can be used to look at data collected from a crime scene. You can look at bullets to compare them to bullets found inside a particular gun. Or you can do a DNA analysis to find out who was present at the scene of a crime.

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