A British nanotech invention has revolutionised the humble optical microscope by quadrupling its magnification power to a level far beyond what could previously be achieved with visible light.
The new technology makes it possible for the first time to view the structure of viruses with a regular microscope, not one that uses electron beams or X-rays to observe very tiny objects.
Scientists effectively broke the rules of physics that limit what can be seen through an optical microscope by combining a traditional lens with tiny transparent beads, or "microspheres", to amplify sub-wavelength light that would normally be invisible.
The Nanopsis microscope has the potential to do the same job as highly expensive equipment usually only found in universities, large companies or specialist centres.
Its developer, start-up company LIG Nanowise based at Manchester Science Park, said it could be a "game changer" in areas such as drug discovery, cancer research, and microelectronics.
Project leader and commercial director Alex Sheppard said: "We have invented a super lens technology which increases the magnification of a regular optical microscope by four times. This allows you to see structures which are 90 nanometres (billionths of a metre) where a regular optical microscope is limited to seeing 200 nanometre structures by limitations in physics.
"This is the most powerful objective lens in the world. What this means is that you can see structures like a virus (75-150 nanometres) which you can't detect with a standard optical microscope and any current objective lenses on the market."
Professor Lin Li, chairman of LIG Nanowise, said: "Researchers can use our microscopes to validate samples and carry out routine work in their own laboratory without having to waste valuable time booking into an imaging centre.
"Our aim is to make super-resolution imaging more accessible to researchers across the globe."
He added that Nanopsis technology could be used by anyone with basic undergraduate scientific training.
At a cost of £35,000 to £50,000 depending on application, the new instrument being marketed from June 29 is about 10 times cheaper than a standard electron microscope.