Microscopy Hack Chat With Zachary Tong

Join us on Wednesday, June 23 at noon Pacific for the Microscopy Hack Chat with Zachary Tong!

There was a time when electronics was very much a hobby that existed in the macroscopic world. Vacuum tubes, wire-wound resistors, and big capacitors were all mounted on terminal strips and mounted in a heavy chassis or enclosure, and interfacing with everything from components to tools was more an exercise in gross motor skills than fine. Even as we started to shrink components down to silicon chips, the packages we put them in were still large enough to handle and see easily. It’s only comparatively recently that everything has started to push the ludicrous end of the scale, with components and processes suitable only for microscopic manipulation, but that’s pretty much where we are now, and things are only likely to get smaller as time goes on.

The microscopic world is a fascinating one, and the tools and techniques to explore it are often complex. That doesn’t mean microscopy is out of the wheelhouse of the average hacker, though. Zachary Tong, proprietor of the delightfully eclectic Breaking Taps channel on YouTube, has been working in the microscopic realm a lot lately. We’ve featured his laser scanning confocal microscope recently, as well as his latest foray into atomic force microscopy. In the past he has also made DIY acrylic lenses, and he has even tried his hand at micromachining glass with lasers.

Zach is pretty comfortable working in and around the microscopic realm, and he’ll stop by the Hack Chat to share what he’s been up to down there. We’ll talk about all the cool stuff going on in Zach’s lab, and see what else he has in store for us.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, June 23 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.
Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Optical Microscope Resolves Down To 40 Nanometers

Optical microscopes depend on light, of course, but they are also limited by that same light. Typically, anything under 200 nanometers just blurs together because of the wavelength of the light being used to observe it. However, engineers at the University of California San Diego have published their results using a hyperbolic metamaterial composed of silver and silica to drive optical microscopy down to below 40 nanometers. You can find the original paper online, also.

The technique also requires image processing. Light passing through the metamaterial breaks into speckles that produce low-resolution images that can combine to form high-resolution images. This so-called structured illumination technique isn’t exactly new, but previous techniques allowed about 100-nanometer resolution, much less than what the researchers were able to find using this material.

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High Tech Photos Capture Snowflakes Like Never Before

Microscopy used to be a rarity in the hobby electronics world. But anyone doing lab work has always needed a microscope and with today’s tiny parts, it is almost a necessity. However, [Nathan Myhrvold] didn’t use an ordinary microscope to capture some beautiful snowflake pictures. According to [My Modern Met], the pictures are the highest resolution snowflake pictures ever taken.

Of course, the site is more interested in the visual aspect of it, but they did provide some clues about the tech behind the pictures. According to the site:

Myhrvold used a special camera of his own design. He combined the magnifying power of a microscopic lens.. with a specially designed optical path. This path allowed the lens to channel its image to a medium-format digital sensor… In addition, the camera featured a cooling stage upon which the tiny specimens could rest. With LED short-pulse lights and a shutter speed of less than 500 microseconds, Myhrvold was able to capture multiple images of each snowflake at different focal lengths. These images were then stacked to create the final image.

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Video: Bil Herds Looks At Mitosis

I loved my science courses when I was in Junior High School; we leaned to make batteries, how molecules combine to form the world we see around us, and basically I got a picture of where we stood in the  scheme of things, though Quarks had yet to be discovered at the time.

In talking with my son I found out that there wasn’t much budget for Science learning materials in his school system like we had back in my day, he had done very little practical hands-on experiments that I remember so fondly. One of those experiments was to look and draw the stages of mitosis as seen under a Microscope. This was amazing to me back in the day, and cemented the wonder of seeing cell division into my memory to this day, much like when I saw the shadow of one of Jupiter’s moons with my own eyes!

Now I have to stop and tell you that I am not normal, or at least was not considered to be a typical young’un growing up near a river in rural Indiana in the 60’s. I had my own microscope; it quite simply was my pride and joy. I had gotten it while I was in the first or second grade as a present and I loved the thing. It was just horrible to use in its later years as lens displaced, the focus rack became looser if that was possible, and dirt accumulated on the internal lens; and yet I loved it and still have it to this day! As I write this, I realize that it’s the oldest thing that I own. (that and the book that came with it).

Today we have better tools and they’re pretty easy to come by. I want to encourage you to do some science with them. (Don’t just look at your solder joints!) Check out the video about seeing mitosis of onion cells through the microscope, then join me below for more on the topic!

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The Smallest Cell Phone Picture

Mobile phones are the photography tool for most of us, but they are a blunt tool. If you love astrophotography, you buy a DSLR and a lens adapter. Infrared photography needs camera surgery or a special unit. If you want to look closer to home, you may have a microscope with a CCD. Your pocket computer is not manufactured for microscopy, but that does not mean it cannot be convinced. Most of us have held our lens up to the eyepiece of some binoculars or a microscope, and it sort of works, but it is far from perfect. [Benedict Diederich] and a team are proving that we can get darn beautiful images with a microscope, a phone holder, and some purpose-built software on an Android phone with their cellSTORM.

The trick to getting useful images is to compare a series of pictures and figure out which pixels matter and which ones are noisy. Imagine someone shows you grainy nighttime footage from an outdoor security camera. When you pause, it looks like hot garbage, and you can’t tell the difference between a patio chair and a shrubbery. As it plays, the noisy pixels bounce around, and you figure out you’re looking at a spruce bush, and that is roughly how the software parses out a crisp image. At the cost of frame rate, you get clarity, which is why you need a phone holder. Some of their tests took minutes, so astrophotography might not fare as well.

We love high-resolution pictures of tiny things and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Thank you [Dr. Nicolás De Francesco] for the tip.

Focus Stacking For Tiny Subjects

Focus stacking is a photographic technique in which multiple exposures are taken of a subject, with the focus distance set to different lengths. These images are then composited together to create a final image with a greater depth of field than is possible with a single exposure. [Peter Lin] built a rig for accurate focus stacking with very small subjects.

The heart of the rig is a motion platform consisting of a tiny stepper motor fitted with a linear slide screw. This is connected to an Arduino or PIC with a basic stepper driver board. While the motor does not respond well to microstepping or other advanced techniques, simply driving it properly can give a resolution of 15 μm per step.

The motor/slide combination is not particularly powerful, and thus cannot readily be used to move the camera or optics. Instead, the rig is designed for photography of very small objects, in which the rail will move the subject itself.

It’s a tidy build that would serve well for anyone regularly doing macro focus stack photography. If you’ve been trying to better photograph your insect collection, this one is for you. It’s a valuable technique and one that applies to microscopy too. Video after the break.

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Seeing Transistors Switch In Infrared

In the hacker and DIY community, there are people who have exceptional knowledge and fantastic tools. These people are able to do what others could only dream about, and that others can only browse eBay looking for that one tool they need to do the job. One of these such people is [John McMaster]. He is the resident expert on looking inside integrated circuits. He drops acid on a chip, and he can tell you exactly how it works on the inside.

At the hardwear.io conference, [John] shared one of his techniques for reverse-engineering intgrated circuits. He’s doing this by simply looking at the transistors, and looking at the light they give off. He’s also looking at the wrong side of the die.

The technique [John] is using is properly called backside analysis, or looking at the infrared emissions of electron recombinations. This happens at the junction of every transistor when it’s active, and these photons are emitted at the bandgap of silicon, or about 1088 nm, far into the infrared. This sort of thing has been done before by [nedos] at CCC in 2013, but rarely have we seen a deep dive into the tools and techniques needed to look at the reverse side of an IC and see the photons coming off.

An IC, seen in infrared

There are several tools [John] used for this work, and he actually did a good comparison of different camera technologies used to image infrared photon emissions from integrated circuits. InGaAs cameras are expensive, but they offer high sensitivity. New back-illuminated CMOS cameras and cooled CCDs normally reserved for astrophotography were also tested, and as always, you get what you pay for; the most expensive cameras worked best, but there were ways you could make the cheap ones work.

As with any camera work, preparing the lighting is of utmost importance. This includes an IR pass filter, and using only LED lighting in the lab with no sunlight, incandescent, or halogen light bulbs in the room — you don’t want any IR, after all. A NIR objective in the microscope was sourced from eBay, for about 1/10th the normal cost, because the objective had a small, insignificant scratch. Using this NIR objective made the image twice as bright as any other method. You can successfully image a chip with this, and [John] tested the setup on a resistor inside a CD4050 chip; the resistor glowed a slight purple, the color you would expect with infrared sensors. But can it work with I/O levels in a more modern chip? Also, yes. It needs some Photoshop to process, and stretching the 12-bit or 16-bit color space into an 8-bit color space, but it does work.

Finally, the supreme achievement of doing backside IR analysis. Is that possible with even this minimal setup? This requires some preparation; the silicon substrate in an IC is transparent in IR, but there is attenuation and this is especially important when the substrate is 300 um thick. This needs to be shaved down to about 25 um thick, which surprisingly is best done with fine sandpaper and a finger.

While few IR emissions were observed via backside emissions, the original plan wasn’t to completely analyze the chip, but merely to do some floor planning. For this, it worked. It’s a remarkable amount of work to see the inside of a silicon chip.