What Is an X-Ray Microscope?

Mary McMahon

An x-ray microscope produces magnified images of small objects with the use of x-rays. This provides unique details that may not be visible with other microscopy technologies. One advantage to an x-ray microscope is the ability to handle thick objects, such as whole cells, which can provide important insight into structures and their function. Research facilities with x-ray microscopy capabilities may perform a variety of experiments with the assistance of this equipment.

Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

The naked eye cannot see x-rays, which means that an x-ray microscope works a bit differently from the basic bench equipment some people may be used to. People looking through a lens wouldn’t see anything, because the x-rays are invisible. Instead, the device either exposes film or a sensitized plate that can display electronic images in false color. The images show people where the x-rays are most dense, and where they scatter, highlighting the presence of various structures inside the specimen.

Technicians who work with x-ray microscopes can use a variety of protocols to prepare and mount specimens on the microscope stage. With each exposure, they can check the output and determine whether any adjustments are necessary for clarity, or to see specific structures. The finished images can be reproduced for review by researchers or publications to accompany scientific papers and announcements. Some may be quite striking, especially when sharpened and cleaned in image processing programs.

Several different x-ray microscope designs are available. One is a basic projection microscope, where x-rays pass through a specimen. This tends to be less efficient than a lens design with a condenser to focus the rays. Focused x-rays are less prone to scattering and errors that might impede the clarity of the images. Researchers can also utilize a scanning x-ray microscope, which changes the position of the specimen between shots to create a series of “slices,” images from different perspectives.

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It is possible to combine multiple microscopy images to create a three dimensional image, which may highlight structures of interest in a cutaway. Varying imaging techniques can also be combined, to take advantage of the different resolutions they offer in a coherent combined picture that enhances visibility and provides key information. Technicians who specialize in x-ray microscopy can take very sharp, clear images and may have advice on combining and utilizing them for the greatest effect. Skilled imaging technicians can be an important part of a research team, as their work may shed light upon a subject in unexpected ways.

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