In 1931, physicist Ernst Ruska—building on the idea that magnetic fields can direct an electron beam just as lenses can direct a beam of light in an optical microscope—developed the first prototype of the electron microscope. This development led to the development of the field of electron microscopy. In the transmission electron microscope (TEM), electrons are produced by a hot tungsten element and accelerated by a potential difference in an electron gun, which gives them up to 400 keV in kinetic energy. After leaving the electron gun, the electron beam is focused by electromagnetic lenses (a system of condensing lenses) and transmitted through a specimen sample to be viewed. The image of the sample is reconstructed from the transmitted electron beam. The magnified image may be viewed either directly on a fluorescent screen or indirectly by sending it, for example, to a digital camera or a computer monitor.
The entire setup consisting of the electron gun, the lenses, the specimen, and the fluorescent screen are enclosed in a vacuum chamber to prevent energy loss from the beam. Modern high-resolution models of a TEM can have resolving power greater than 0.5 Å and magnifications higher than 50 million times. For comparison, the best resolving power obtained with light microscopy is currently about 97 nm.
A limitation of the TEM is that the samples must be about 100 nm thick, and biological samples require a special preparation involving chemical “fixing” to stabilize them for ultrathin slicing. To overcome the limitations, several advancements in TEM techniques, such as cryo-TEM, have been made to get rid of artifacts and allow for direct sample imaging without the sample-damaging stages of sample fixation and dehydration.
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