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Light Microscope vs Electron Microscope 

Last Updated: 12.07.20

 

Microscopes are amongst the coolest inventions as they open a gate to a whole new world, allowing people to study even the smallest lifeforms, so make sure to check various reviews of microscopes to find the perfect one, according to your requirements.

Microscopes are the best way to research everything surrounding us and to find answers to some of the most complex problems of the world, such as the origins of life and evolution. Depending on their size and complexity, they can be used by people of all ages, starting with kindergarten children who are attracted to science. 

However, as we evolved, these devices also became more specific and complex, requiring a unique set of skills to use them properly and make the most of their sophisticated compounds. The most common types of microscopes existing are light and electron devices, each coming with a specific set of properties, strong points, and downsides. 

So, if you want to learn more about microscopes in general and find the perfect device for your future science projects, here is what you should know. 

 

Brief history 

If you’re looking at the differences between these two types of microscopes, you should start with the year, or the century when they were first made. Although there is no exact date to mark the beginning of the optical microscopes (light microscopes), it is believed that a Dutch spectacle maker, Zacharius Jansen, and his father, Hans, were the first ones to invent a rudimentary version of the microscope, back in the 16th century. 

It wasn’t until three centuries later, in 1931, that physicist Ernst Ruska and a German engineer named Max Knoll assembled the first beam or electron microscope. 

Throughout the centuries, scientists have looked to expand their knowledge horizon, contributing to the creation of new, better, improved microscopes with a higher magnification rate that helped them see even more details. 

However, there are many other differences between these two types of microscopes, so each of them serves a specific purpose. Let’s take a closer look at these differences and identify them so that you can know which one will suit your research purposes better. But first, let’s see some similarities.

 

Similarities 

Before diving into the pool of differences, it is worth mentioning that both types of microscopes serve the same purpose – to form a larger (magnified) and more detailed picture of small objects or areas of larger objects. These lenses are more powerful than the human eye so that the purpose of a microscope is to let people see beyond their physical abilities. 

Another similarity between the beam and optical microscopes is that they are both used for studying and researching purposes, mainly in the biology and medical fields. They are extremely useful when studying anatomy, biology, and even histonomy or metallurgy. 

Finally, they both use specimens or samples that must be carefully prepared using appropriate techniques to preserve the quality of the samples and ensure accurate testing and research. With the help of microscopes, we are now able to see cells and molecules and improve our understanding of viruses, bacteria, human blood, and other interesting things. 

 

What are the main differences between light and electron microscopes?

Size 

The first and most notable difference between them is their size. Optical or light microscopes are usually small and portable and don’t weigh more than 5-6 pounds, depending on their generation and features. Thus, they are easier to carry around and set up, as opposed to electron microscopes. 

The first generations of electron microscopes were as big as a room and required various people to turn them on, prepare them, and use them. However, as technologies advanced, we are now seeing smaller and more powerful electron microscopes but this doesn’t mean they are anywhere near a portable size yet. 

 

Cost/Availability

Depending on their technical features, most light microscopes cost around $200-$300. They are available for sale online and in regular stores and come with dozens of handy accessories to help you prepare the process. There are also numerous kits designed specifically for kids that include samples or specimens, tweezers, and a carrying bag to keep everything in place and secured. 

Don’t forget that some light microscopes for children resemble toys more rather than actual microscopes, so seeing clearly and obtaining a good focus might be hard. They are also made of plastic and look flimsy, so they might not be suitable for science purposes. On the other hand, they are usually cheaper, at around $50. 

As for electron microscopes, they are mainly designed for professional use only, so you’ll see them in testing labs and universities. Due to their high standards, they can only be handled by highly trained professionals, which means that not every person can afford them. 

Depending on their size and characteristics, electron microscopes can cost up to $100,000, although many vary between $30,000-$50,000. Given that they are an investment, we suggest you contact the manufacturer personally or only buy from reputed sellers and distributors. 

 

Magnification rate

One of the biggest differences you’ll notice between these two types of microscopes is in terms of magnification rate or how many times the devices can enhance an image. Depending on the scope, a good light microscope can boost the image 40x-1000x times. However, a high magnification doesn’t always mean a clearer image as you’ll also need high resolution to make the most of the magnification rate. 

Electron microscopes have higher resolutions and magnification rates, and they are mainly used for advanced research, and this is one of the reasons why they cost a lot more than “desk” devices. An electron microscope can magnify an image up to 300,000X with a resolution that is about 250 times higher than the one you would get from a normal optic microscope. 

 

Source of light and optics

The main illuminating source of an optic microscope is light, whereas electron devices use beams of electrons to deliver an image. In terms of optics, the first microscope uses eyepiece lenses, a condenser, and an objective all made of quality glass, whereas the electron microscope uses electromagnetic lenses. 

 

Specimens

Another difference between the microscopes is the type of specimens you can see on them. With a light microscope, you can use all sorts of specimens, both alive or dead. The electron microscope only allows you to see dead or dried specimens.

The preparation of the specimens and their storing also requires an elaborate and time-consuming process. The main reason why light microscopes are used at school and for studying purposes is that it won’t take more than a few minutes or hours to prepare the specimens. 

On the other hand, to get the most of a dead specimen on an electron microscope, you need to properly prepare and store it for a few days. 

The preparation of the specimens also differs depending on the type of microscope used. For instance, light microscopes will require specimens stained by colored dyes, while the electron devices need specimens coated with heavy metals to reflect the electrons. 

 

Colors

The image projected by a light microscope is colored and as close as possible to what you can see with the naked eye. It forms an image that includes the range of wavelengths provided by the light source. However, with stained specimens, the colors that you see are most likely due to the stains and don’t necessarily depict the real colors present in nature.

On the other hand, the images received on an electron microscope can only be black and white although the actual term used is “greyscale” images. Sometimes, you get to see false color electron micrographs which are beautiful. 

 

Source of power

Finally, a light microscope works on its own and rarely requires the use of high voltage electricity. 

Most of these devices have batteries that fuel the lamps so you can see the specimens better, whereas electron microscopes will need a generous source of power, of about 50,000 volts and above to work. This can also lead to a radiation leakage risk, whereas the radiation risk is 0 when we’re talking about light microscopes. 

 

Conclusion

Light microscopes are the most common instruments used in research and science projects and can be powerful enough to help your cause. If you’re looking for high-accuracy results and lab-precision results, you should be ready to invest thousands of dollars in an electron microscope and also have the knowledge to operate it. 

 

 

Ioana Moldovan

Ioana’s professional experience in the optics field has helped her understand the value of passing her knowledge forward. Her curious personality helps her gather useful information for her readers and her goal is to make technical information fun and accessible to everyone.

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