Record-breaking microscope developed using methods pioneered by Sheffield scientists

  • Revolutionary microscope produces images in the highest resolution ever obtained
  • Electron microscope developed using computational algorithms pioneered by University of Sheffield scientists
  • Record-breaking microscope could be used to study 3D atomic structure at unprecedented resolution

Graphene atomic structure, computer illustration.

A revolutionary microscope that has produced images in the highest resolution ever obtained has been developed by researchers using microscopic techniques pioneered by scientists at the University of Sheffield.

The record-breaking electron microscope, built by researchers at Cornell University in the USA, can produce images at a higher resolution than conventional approaches. It could be used to determine the atomic structure of materials that are normally damaged using existing methods.

The microscope may eventually allow researchers to study 2D materials, such graphene, using unprecedented precision to provide new insights into this burgeoning class of useful materials that have extraordinary physical and electrical properties, and which could revolutionise many modern technologies.

It may also lead to the development of a method that can image individual atoms in 3D objects without damaging the structure by using ‘slow’ low-energy electrons.

Electron imaging is usually conducted using expensive lenses and high-energy electrons that damage many types of material. Alternatively, the Cornell research team recorded electrons that had been scattered through high angles to get around these problems.

Once scattered, the electrons don’t look anything like an image, so the Cornell research team used computational algorithms developed by scientists at the University of Sheffield to work out backwards what the specimen looked like. This is what enabled the microscope to generate the record-breaking high resolution image.

For many years, this backwards calculation, known as the phase problem, was regarded as impossible to solve for a large image.

Professor John Rodenburg from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, who developed the computational algorithms together with his colleague Andrew Maiden, commented:

“The electron microscope developed by the Cornell research team is the most powerful microscope we’ve ever seen. It is capable of capturing images that have an unprecedented level of detail, which is important because it now paves the way for us to develop new insights into material structure at the atomic scale.

“Such an advanced electron microscope wasn’t possible previously because although the technique we developed here at the University of Sheffield works well for X-ray and light microscopes, in the case of electron microscopy it needs a near-perfect detector to get good enough quality data. Now, due to the advances in detector technology made by the Cornell team, this record-breaking microscope can successfully run the Sheffield algorithm.”

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact:

Sean Barton
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852