Britain’s most powerful microscope which allows scientists to view atoms one million times smaller than the width of a human hair has been unveiled at Cambridge University.
The Titan 3 electron microscope cost £3.9million and can be used to view individual atoms and magnify objects 100 million times.
But the equipment is so sensitive it has been encased in a £0.5million box to protect it from radiation and vibrations caused by voices and footsteps.
Scientists believe the microscope could help them solve the mystery of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and find a way of creating energy without burning fossil fuels.
Dr Colin Humphreys, director of research for material sciences at the University of Cambridge, today described the technology as ”amazing”.
He said: ”We are very excited to be able to carry out our research projects using the most powerful microscope in Britain.
”We can finally see single atoms and it will enable us to solve problems that have eluded science until now. The technology is amazing.
”I can look through the lens and see the building blocks of life – it really is an incredible feeling.
”The microscope is so powerful that we have to house it in its own special box to protect it from vibrations caused by voices and footsteps.
”We believe we can use the microscope to improve our understanding of diseases and maybe even find a cure.
”It helps us study diseased cells in unprecedented detail. Looking through the microscope is quite a remarkable experience.”
The Titan 3 was designed by American microscope company FEI before being constructed by specialists in Holland.
It was assembled this week in the Nanoscience Centre, Cambridge, after tests revealed the Material Science Building in the city centre was located too close to busy roads.
The microscope is so sensitive to vibrations that engineers have dug a hole in the floor of the building and installed separate foundations.
It is also encased in a £0.5million black box, which prevents any radiation from damaging the equipment and also stops sound waves created by voices or movement.
Scientists using the microscope operate it from a computer in another room to ensure that their footsteps and voices cannot affect the sensors.
The microscope enables scientists to view and analyse structures at a resolution of 0.7 Angstrom – less than one-half the size of a carbon atom.
It can magnify objects 100 million times while the average school microscope only magnifys 100 times.
The microscope works by firing a stream of electrons through an electromagnetic ‘lens’ onto the specimen.
The electrons then continue through several other electromagnetic ‘lenses’, where they are magnified, before being displayed on a computer screen.
Paul Midgley, a professor of material science at the University of Cambridge, described the microscope as ”breathtaking”.
He said: ”Looking through the lens is a breathtaking experience. We are viewing things at a level we just haven’t been able to do before.
”We can view individual atoms and we are trying to find out more about the structures of different types.”
Researchers will use the microscope to investigate diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s at an atomic level.
Scientists have discovered the diseases are characterised by ‘nanowires’ which are made up of proteins that have misfolded.
If they can discover how these proteins are formed they may be one step closer to solving the mystery of the so far incurable diseases.
Researchers will also be using the microscope, unveiled by the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, to study the next generation of lighting for our homes and offices.
The new LED light technology could reduce Britain’s energy output by 15 per cent as well as reduce carbon emissions.