Imagine being able to examine anything you want, at the atomic level, in your living room. If Sacha De'Angeli gets his way, a scanning tunneling electron microscope -- currently just the domain of research labs -- will be something you can order off the Web, as an easy-to-assemble, open-source kit, for about $1000.
Scanning tunneling electron microscopes -- or STMs, for short -- are sophisticated imaging tools used in nanoscience and nanotechnology. The heart of the device is a conductive tip, which is guided over the surface to be observed, at a very tiny distance. An applied voltage means that a current flows between the tip and the surface, and the variation of the current reveals clues about the structure of the surface. A computer hooked to the STM processes the data, generating an image of the sample.
De'Angeli, a 34-year-old tinkerer living in Chicago who runs a website called Chemhacker, came up with the idea for the open-source STM while experimenting with creating nanoparticles in his house. He began building the STM in October, at his home and at a nearby hack space called Pumping Station: One, with the assistance of his friends Jordan Bunker and Tim Saylor. "I was trying to make a ferrofluid, and I sort of built a cool recipe to do it, but I wasn't exactly sure if I made the actual nanoparticles," De'Angeli says. "You can't tell what they look like without an electron microscope. Obviously a $30,000 machine isn't something I can afford for a hobby. I found these projects where people had built scanning tunneling electron microscopes for really not very much money. I started this project I found, that dates back to 2003 by John Alexander, and I started to modernize it a bit."
Several homegrown recipes abound for building scanning tunneling electron microscopes. One such project, from a research group at the University of Muenster in Germany, is called the SXM; through their website, you can buy a construction kit for 985 euros. But many of these projects, designed by academics, rely on pricey external hardware -- like signal generators and oscilloscopes -- that the average person might not have. They also don't always use the most up-to-date technology, and while some have released schematics, none of them are open source. De'Angeli's project is designed to stand alone, and it is entirely open source, relying on the Arduino, the popular open-source microcontroller board, which is in active use for thousands of projects around the globe. A Python script takes the raw data and pulls it into an image file. D'Angeli's hope is that average folks -- people not affiliated with science departments at all -- will start making and using their own STMs at home.
De'Angeli is presenting his project this week at the Open Science Summit in Berkeley. He is careful to note that the open-source STM is still a work in progress, and its first images should be forthcoming within the next few months. "There's probably some big scary problem that I haven't been able to think about yet, that's probably going to come up and bite me," he says. Considering his tremendous progress so far, it should be finished any time now. "I don't know the limits of it," he says. "It's kind of exciting to see what people will make with it."
This is pretty much a non-story until he can actually make an image. You're really starting to disappoint me with these types of stories Popsci.
If this device holds true, then this could be a great innovation that would be used by many people:
- private researchers
- some small businesses
- school systems
But therealjbob is right, PopSci keeps making headlines that gets you worked up and then disappoint later on in the story. This has to stop.
Yes God forbid you give us new ideas and concepts that lead to more advanced research on these subjects. AKA you're doing fine Popsci keep it up.
Most interesting article! The timing is perfect as we have been looking for a project for the RainyDayScience team.
We would definitely try to build it when the kit is available.
"We Entertain When It Rains"
therealjbob , wheres your scanning electron microscope that you made on a breadboard from your electronics class? Oh ya you dont have one .
I have to agree with 10jacobf and therealjbob. Between garbage posts like this and iphone articles (Ahem, APPLE ads) being shoved down our throats (to the point that the writer of one of these iphone articles (John Mahoney), being the good little paladin of apple he is, stated so pretentiously to squash any anti-iphoner or Macintosh negativism: "@kormiki Have you used the iPhone 4, and all of the other major smartphones to come out this year? I have.") I really don't know which is worse.
(Can the editor please get on firing this writer for insulting the target audience as if he knows better because he's privileged? Oh that's right, you guys need Apple revenue...so you won't. Great way to care for you advertisers before your readers...isn't that bass ackwards?)
Digital Wings, how is an article that makes you read until the closing paragraph to find out that it's all just postulation a good article? This is what is called deceptive journalism and doesn't equal good writing. You guys are supposed to be ::POPULAR SCIENCE:: not STAR, THE SUN, or FASHION MAGAZINE. I cringe when I see these pointless articles. You might as well print a story of a magical blue bunny and his golden companion dragon. At least then I would find some entertainment along side my disappointment.
While some of the iphone articles were a bit much, articles like this are important. It gives exposure to someone who might need funding for research. If the only things anyone ever heard about were those that had already been finished, quite a few discoveries wouldn't have been made. When word gets out that someone is working on something, it can get other people working on it as well. It turns a solo project into a group effort that can get the task done much quicker or move a nearly impossible task into a much better place.