It is a microscope that is smaller than the No. 1 on a now-defunct Canadian penny.

But this powerful tool is able to do everything its big brother in laboratories across the country can do for a fraction of the cost.

A Waterloo company has created the world's first microscopic atomic force microscope (AFM) and has big plans for the device.

Microscope on a penny

To get a sense of size, the nGauge microscope is seen here on a penny. The miniature product would sell for less than $5,000. (ICSPI)

"These instruments are normally really big, like, they would fill up a tabletop," said Duncan Strathearn, co-founder of nGauge. "They cost upwards of $500,000, you pretty much need a PhD to operate them because they're kind of complex."

The miniature product would sell for less than $5,000.

"We've made this instrument a lot smaller, a lot faster, a lot simpler and about 100 times cheaper," he said.

Big power in tiny device

The microscopic microscope was created by Neil Sarkar, who started Integrated Circuit Scanning Probe Instruments (ICSPI) while doing his PhD at the University of Waterloo with the goal of taking nGauge to market.

The microscope connects to a one-by-one millimetre chip, which is attached to a device that is then hooked up to a computer. Users can then view the tiniest of items on their computer screens.

The microscope can be used to view things such as carbon nanotubes, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and proteins, Strathearn said — items you can't see with the naked eye and that are smaller than the wavelength of light.

Neil Sarkar

Neil Sarkar developed the microscopic atomic force microscope while completing his PhD at the University of Waterloo. (Rick Hughes/CBC News)

"For example, if you're electroplating a metal surface, you can use this to characterize the roughness of that surface. Or if you're doing some grinding, if you're grinding a surface and you want to make it really smooth, you can use this to characterize just how smooth that is," Strathearn said.

Sarkar has been showing the microscope to potential customers and said the feedback has been positive.

nGauge images

The nGauge is able to see what isn't visible to the naked eye. On the left is collagen and on the right are DVD pits. (ICSPI)

"People who use really advanced and expensive AFMs are pretty shocked that we're hitting the same resolution specs at such a small fraction of the cost and [it's] so easy to use," he said. 

"Then there are people who have never seen when an AFM is, and for them, it kind of blows their mind."

Company eyes universities

The company is currently focused on selling the microscope to university and industry researchers.

But one day, they would love to see it used by students of every age.

"As we make it a lot more accessible, we can have these in every university undergrad lab so they can teach it in their science labs or their engineering labs," Strathearn said.

Using nGauge

Researchers use nGauge, a microscopic microscope, and view the images of really small things such as DNA on their computer screens. (ICSPI)

"A couple of months ago, we even brought this to a high school and we had a high school physics class use this, which is something that has never really been done before because these are big, expensive instruments."

Sarkar said they want people to realize anyone can use their microscope.

"What we want to do is shatter the notion that if you want to do nanotech, you have to have a PhD and access to a million-dollar facility."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story included a photo caption that referred to DVD "bits". In fact, a laser reads the DVD's pits, and that information is translated into bits.
    Jul 11, 2016 5:22 PM ET