This interactive looks at different types of microscopes and how they are used.

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Rights: The University of Waikato Published 28 June 2016

This interactive looks at different types of microscopes and how they are used. Your job is to select which microscope is best suited to examine a prepared sample. You can choose from an optical microscope, a scanning electron microscope, a transmission electron microscope and a scanning tunnelling microscope. To learn more about the four types of microscope, use the handbook.

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Meet the microscopes

You must be the new research assistant. Good to have you on board!
You will be working with four different microscopes to help scientists with their research, from identifying infected cells to analysing the structure of nanoparticles.

Your job

You have been assigned six tasks. For each task, you need to choose which microscope is best suited to examine a prepared sample.
Click on the Handbook to learn about the different microscopes, or select Next to begin the tasks.


Drag and drop the flask from the task box onto the microscope you think best suits the requirements of the scientists.
You will only have two attempts to get the right answer as each sample takes a lot of time to prepare, so choose carefully.
Only a correct answer will generate the desired image on the computer screen.

Types of microscopes

Optical microscope

Magnification: Up to 1,000 times (you can use lower magnifications to see groups of cells).
Generated image: Magnified colour view.
Key features: Samples on glass slides are sometimes stained to make certain parts show up. Specimens can be viewed in colour.
How it works: Visible light and lenses produce a magnified image of an object, so they are often called ‘light’ microscopes. Image seen through an eyepiece or a camera.

Transmission electron microscope (TEM)

Magnification: Up to 10,000,000 times.
Generated image: Sharp 2D black and white image.
Key features: Looks at details inside cells and structures such as nanoparticles.
How it works: Uses a beam of electrons that are passed through the sample. The image created is then magnified, focused by a lens and captured by a computer. The sample needs to be very thin – no more than 1 micrometre thick.

Scanning electron microscope (SEM) 

Magnification: Up to 50,000 times.
Generated image: Sharp 3D black and white image.
Key features: Looks at the surface structure of a sample
How it works: Scans a thin beam of electrons across the surface of the sample. The reflected electrons are then collected to make an image.

Scanning Tunnelling microscope (STM)

Magnification: Up to 90,000,000 times.
Generated image: 3D black and white computer image of the atoms on the surface of a sample. Can be coloured to aid viewing.
Key features: Looks at individual atoms, so only a few nanometers of a sample can be seen at a time.
How it works: Uses a probe, with a tip only an atom wide, that scans across a sample’s surface. Atom by atom, it moves up and down in response to an electric current passing between the probe and the sample.

Task 1
A doctor suspects a patient has an infection and needs to know how many white and red blood cells there are.
Which microscope will allow you to view lots of blood cells at fairly low magnification?

Task 2
A scientist is studying single-celled green algae called Chlamydomonas. She wants to see a thin slice of a cell, showing details of the structures inside.
Which microscope will show the inside structure of the cell?

Task 3
A scientist is researching how white blood cells fight diseases and needs to see the surface details of the cells.
Which microscope is best suited to producing a 3D image of this sample?

Task 4
A nanotechnologist needs to see if she has successfully made different shaped nanoparticles.
Which microscope should she use to see the shapes of the nanoparticles? (Nanoparticles are very small, so she will need a magnification of at least 5,000,000 times.)

Task 5
A nanotechnologist has made a mass of carbon nanotubes that are only a few nanometers wide. He needs to see the 3D structure they have formed.
Which microscope should he use to see the 3D structure of this sample?

Task 6
A group of scientists have made nanowires, only two or three atoms wide, to use in tiny electronic components. They want to see how the atoms of the different materials are arranged.
Which microscope will they use to see the atoms that make up a sample only a few nanometers across?