Before Russell Kerschmann came along, the world through a microscope looked much the way people perceived the world at large to be before Columbus set sail: flat. Microscopes let us see an object's surface and get some sense of its insides, but its true three-dimensional architecture remained a mystery. No one knew exactly how the two parts of Velcro attach, or precisely how the network of pores in a paper towel enable it to suck up water, or even how the three different layers that make up our skin interact. Then Kerschmann invented a new kind of microscope -- and it's revolutionizing the way scientists see.
Scientists at Procter and Gamble, for example, are harnessing Kerschmann's technology to study how bone reacts to various drugs as it grows. Engineers at Sandia National Laboratories are employing the new scope to measure the tiny screws and gears they use to build microscopic robots. "We'd be up a creek without it," says Christine Miller, a pediatric cardiologist at the University of Rochester. Miller is using the new imaging technique to investigate whether raising blood pressure around embryonic chick hearts can cause congenital heart defects.
"We've gone through a year and half of doing this with other technology and have gotten nothing."
What began as a device that took up too much room on Kerschmann's kitchen table is now the hub of a multimillion-dollar company, Resolution Sciences Corp., based in Corte Madera, California. The technology, called digital volumetric imaging, provides scientists with accurate three-dimensional images of almost anything they care to look at up close. The images can be rotated and viewed from any angle; they can also be opened up to reveal the sample's interior.
Kerschmann's images are so different from what came before that they are even teaching manufacturers and scientists things they never knew about their own products. When Kerschmann imaged Velcro, for example, he learned that the material is inefficiently constructed -- most of the binding fibers never make contact.
Kerschmann's images could help manufacturers engineer a form of Velcro that's just as strong but costs less to make. "In our lab, I see things almost every day that no one's ever seen before," Kerschmann says. "And we're just beginning to learn all the applications of the technology."
People have been peering into microscopes for more than 150 years to get a close-up look at the natural world, and the devices have become increasingly sophisticated. But existing microscopes run into problems when magnifying samples that are larger than a few hairs' diameter. They cannot capture the samples' internal details three-dimensionally.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.