"We've learned loads of stuff about our gears that we didn't know before," says Doug Chinn, a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California. Chinn manufactures gears and screws just a few hundred microns long -- about half the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen. They are parts for micromechanical devices such as tiny robots that scientists hope one day will be implanted into people to deliver drugs or protect transplanted cells. To design the parts, engineers rely on computer drawings. But until Resolution came along, Chinn says, his team was unable to determine whether or not the dimensions of the manufactured parts actually matched the drawings. "Resolution's technology enables us to look at the sides of our parts," he says. "No other technique gives us the same information."
Meanwhile, at the Biological Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute at Caltech in Pasadena, Andy Ewald is trying to trace how cells move within frog embryos as they develop. But the embryos are opaque, so he can't see inside them. Ewald gets around this problem by tagging specific cells with fluorescent dye, then asking Resolution to make images of the embryos at various stages of development -- from the initial ball of cells to a fetus with recognizable organs. The data enable him to see inside the embryos and determine which bodily organs his tagged cells eventually turn into.
Useful as it is, Kerschmann's technology isn't exactly perfect. Some scientists complain that the microscope can't handle anything larger than 8 millimeters on an edge -- about the size of a sugar cube -- and that the resolution of his images declines as samples approach the maximum size. The problem is hardware, Kerschmann says. Today's computers can't crunch his data quickly enough.
Still, Kerschmann's scope is transforming the landscape of the very small. Scientists have been trying to make accurate microscopic 3-D images for more than 100 years, but until now they've had to fall back on artists' renderings of what the object should look like. "We produce the real thing," Kerschmann says.
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.