Electron Microscopes vs. Optical (Light) microscopes

Electron vs. Light Microscopes: Basic Differences

There are not many things that these two microscope types have in common. Both electron and light microscopes are technical devices which are used for visualizing structures that are too small to see with the unaided eye, and both types have relevant areas of applications in biology and the materials sciences. And this is pretty much it. The method of visualizing the structures is very different. Electron Microscopes use electrons and not photons (light rays) for visualization. The first electron microscope was constructed in 1931, compared to optical microscopes they are a very recent invention.

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Electron microscopes have certain advantages over optical microscopes:

  • Resolution: The biggest advantage is that they have a higher resolution and are therefore also able of a higher magnification (up to 2 million times). Light microscopes can show a useful magnification only up to 1000-2000 times. This is a physical limit imposed by the wavelength of the light. Electron microscopes therefore allow for the visualization of structures that would normally be not visible by optical microscopy.
  • Surface structure: Depending on the type of electron microscope, it is possible to view the three dimensional external shape of an object (Scanning Electron Microscope, SEM).
  • Depth of field: In scanning electron microscopy (SEM), due to the nature of electrons, electron microscopes have a greater depth of field compared to light microscopes. The higher resolution may also give the human eye the subjective impression of a higher depth of field.

Electron microscopes have a range of disadvantages as well:

  • Cost: They are extremely expensive. Maintenance costs are high.
  • Preparation: Sample preparation is often much more elaborate. It is often necessary to coat the specimen with a very thin layer of metal (such as gold). The metal is able to reflect the electrons.
  • Dead specimens only: The sample must be completely dry. This makes it impossible to observe living specimens. The energy of the electron beam is very high. The sample is therefore exposed to high radiation, and therefore not able to live.
  • No movement: It is not possible to observe moving specimens (they are dead).
  • Black/white: It is not possible to observe color. Electrons do not possess a color. The image is only black/white. Sometimes the image is colored artificially to give a better visual impression.
  • Training: They require more training and experience in identifying artifacts that may have been introduced during the sample preparation process.
  • Space: The space requirements are high. They may need a whole room.
SEM of pollen grains
Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of various Pollen. Public domain image reference: Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College

When should one use optical (light) microscopes?

One big advantage of light microscopes is the ability to observe living cells. It is possible to observe a wide range of biological activity, such as the uptake of food, cell division and movement. Additionally, it is possible to use in-vivo staining techniques to observe the uptake of colored pigments by the cells. These processes can not be observed in real time using electron microscopes, as the specimen has to be fixed, and completely dehydrated (and is therefore dead). The low cost of optical microscopes makes them useful in a wide range of different areas, such as education, the medical sector or for hobbyists. Generally, optical and electron microscopes have different areas of application and they complement each other.

Different types of electron microscopes

There are two different types of electron microscopes, scanning electron microscopes (SEM) and transmission electron microscopes (TEM). In the TEM method, an electron beam is passed through an extremely thin section of the specimen. You will get a two-dimensional cross-section of the specimen. SEMs, in contrast, visualize the surface structure of the specimen, providing a 3-D impression. The image above was produced by a SEM.

Different types of light microscopes

The two most common types of microscopes are compound microscopes and stereo microscopes (dissecting microscopes). Stereo microscopes are frequently used to observe larger, opaque specimens. They generally do not magnify as much as compound microscopes (around 40x-70x maximum) but give a truly stereoscopic view. This is because the image delivered to each eye is slightly different. Stereo microscopes do not necessarily require elaborate sample preparation.

Compound microscopes magnify up to about 1000x. The specimen has to be sufficiently thin and bright for the microscope light to pass through. The specimen is mounted on a glass slide. Compound microscopes are not capable of producing a 3D (stereoscopic) view, even if they possess two eye pieces. This is because each one of the eyes receives the same image from the objective. The light beam is simply split in two.

41 thoughts on “Electron Microscopes vs. Optical (Light) microscopes”

  1. I am so thankful to you for the information you provide in this article, but I am a little bit confused with learning Light Microscopes classification as we get informed by Pelczar that Light microscopes are four types. Your content is so helpful for me to give an overview of Electron Microscope but I feel this article has lacks in providing information about Light Microscopes.

  2. The biggest Advantage: they are fun to use, and not complicated. Sample preparation is usually fast and they are suitable for hobby purposes.

  3. Thnx alot. It helped me with my biology hw but the information was too much i couldnt summarise all of it or it would take a week

  4. im 52 and i own 8 microscopes as a hobby on tuesdays me and my friends love to look at your research to extend our craniums

  5. Electric microscopes use a lamp, non-electric microscopes use a mirror as a light source. Not be be confused with electron microscopes.

  6. what is the differents between an electrick microscope and a non-electric microscope

  7. Best help I have received so far this helped with my course work load

  8. What if we want to compare the results of images taken by Optical microscope and TEM. I basically need to relate the crystallization in an amorphous region due to the heterogeneous nucleation. Can it be said that the two images show the same feature regarding this?

  9. Just to let you know, an advantage of a Transmission Electron Microscope over a Light Microscope is that you actually can observe living things, as otherwise detailed in your article. But the rest is great!

  10. Thanks a Million! You made my entire semester by helping me to get started with valuable and informative helpful resourcing.

    I appreciate it much!

    Rene’e T.

  11. This helped me so much….i didn’t have my science book. lol!!! Do you have stuff on how the image was created?


  12. I think this post of yours has helped many people in doing their projects, homeworks and assignments

  13. Thanks so much! This helped me alot if you can please post more in the near future! This helped me so much when I was doing my onion and cheek cell lab thanks:)

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  17. helped me for my homework but the information was hard to find.
    Would have better if there was a box showing differences.

  18. Electron microscopes have a range of disadvantages as well:
    -They are extremely expensive.
    -Sample preparation is often much more elaborate. It is often necessary to coat the specimen with a very thin layer of metal (such as gold). The metal is able to reflect the electrons.
    -The sample must be completely dry. This makes it impossible to observe living specimens.
    -They require more training and experience in identifying artifacts that may have been introduced during the sample preparation process.
    -The space requirements are high. They may need a whole room.

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  19. some other differences are as follows
    @ optical microscopes are the simplest and oldest microscope compared to electron microscope
    @ optical models are cheaper and easier to maintain than electron microscope
    @ optical microscopes use simple lens whereas EM use an electostatic and electomagnetic lens

  20. I found this really helpful, it answered my questions for me and also enabled me to understand clearly..Thank you..

  21. I loved this comprehensive information! This really helped me while studying for a final exam. Thank you 🙂

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  23. Thank you for giving these details.
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