SCHOTT solutions no. 2/2009 > Microscopy

STED microscopy, (above) as a system solution from Leica Microsystems, allows for structures to be detected much better at the nano level than conventional confocal microscopy. This can be seen in the three microscopic photos that compare the left and right halfs of the respective images. Photo: Leica Microsystems

Look into the Nano-Cosmos

They push the boundaries of optics and are more than just supply partners: Leica Microsystems manufactures super high resolution microscopes, SCHOTT supplies high-end glasses for them.

Thilo Horvatitsch

Researchers can only learn about how life originates or where diseases come from by looking into the nano-cosmos of cells. While electron or scanning tunneling microscopes are capable of sufficiently magnifying extremely small objects, such as proteins, they cannot be used to observe living or intact organic material. For quite some time, this wasn’t even possible with advanced light microscopy that has been around for hundreds of years. After all, according to the so-called Abbe’s ”Law of Diffraction”, focused light is unable to resolve details much smaller than 200 nanometers.

This law was bypassed, however, when the German scientist Prof. Stefan Hell invented the award-winning 4Pi and STED technologies that Leica Microsystems then developed to market maturity. Fluorescence microscopy can achieve optical resolutions of up to ten nanometers (see info box). Now, even the transmission of signals in nerve cells can be observed. This success story includes an ingenious footnote: the ”heirs” of the scientist who thought it would be impossible to cross this frontier even played a role in manufacturing this groundbreaking innovation. Ernst Abbe, the man who established the ”Law of Diffraction”, was a co-founder of SCHOTT – the very same company that equips STED microscopes from Leica Microsystems, among others, with optical glasses.

The business relationship is therefore hardly a coincidence. Both companies date back to the 19th century and have their roots in optics. The name Ernst Leitz stands for important progress in microscopy and camera technology. In 1913, he presented the first binocular microscopes that were ready for use. One year later, the legendary ”Leica” (Leitz Camera) that became the embodiment of high-quality 35 mm cameras “made in Germany” was born. In the 1990s, the group finally split up into three independent companies that share one brand.

Today, Leica Microsystems is one of the global market leaders in the area of microscopes and scientific instruments. The company manufactures sophisticated microscopic system solutions for research and surgery, laboratory microscopes for clinical examinations and in-vitro fertilization, educational microscopes for teaching facilities or microscopes for industry, for use in material analysis, for instance.
These cross-sectional views of an sted microscope (above) and the lens of ­another microscope from Leica Microsystems (below) clearly show that a number of precisely combined optical components are needed to deliver excellent performance. All of these sophisticated instruments contain glass products and know-how from SCHOTT. Photos: Leica Microsystems

STED lens contains four glasses from SCHOTT

SCHOTT, a company that has always had a strong influence on the optical and glass industries by developing special-purpose glasses, has maintained relationships with all three of the Leica companies since the end of the 19th century. Today, the technology group supplies various high-end materials to Leica Microsystems for microscopic applications, optical glasses, blanks and filters, as well as fiber optic lighting solutions and synthetic fused silica (LITHOSIL®), for instance.

The lens used in the unique STED microscope contains four different glasses from SCHOTT. These offer excellent transmission in the main spectral regions, particularly the uv range, as well as extremely low autofluorescence. It is therefore almost impossible to tamper with the measurement results. SCHOTT offers various types of glasses with profound optical properties that are perfectly suited for Leica Microsystems.

In other words, the partnership extends well beyond that of only a typical supplier relationship. “We cooperate in a number of specialized fields and focus our activities on meeting the needs of customers and pursuing further technological developments,” explains Peter Kruell, Sales Director Europe, SCHOTT Advanced Optics. The “small roundtables on glass” are one example of this. During these meetings that are held on a regular basis, experts that also include representatives of Leica and SCHOTT discuss solutions for meeting product demands and how to design the respective glass portfolio. The development departments also remain in close contact and various ways of providing support with respect to the appropriate forms of delivery or processing are discussed during the designer meetings held at Leica or SCHOTT.

The aim of these joint coordination efforts is not only to determine what glasses are suited for specific microscopes. Logistics, delivery reliability and quality assurance also play an important role. ”Striving to achieve the highest quality is a recurring theme in our world and this also pertains to the entire customer-supplier process,” says Dr. Claus Gunkel, head of the Leica Optic Center. ”This is why we also involve suppliers in our understanding of quality. In this respect, SCHOTT is a proven strategic partner that we plan to work with for some time to come,” he adds. <|
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