Ultramicrotomy: Precision Sectioning for Nanoscale Analysis

What is Ultramicrotomy?

Ultramicrotomy is a specialized technique used for preparing extremely thin sections of materials for microscopic analysis, particularly in the fields of nanotechnology, biology, and materials science. It involves using a diamond knife to cut ultrathin sections, typically in the range of 30 to 100 nanometers, from a sample embedded in a resin block.

Key Components of an Ultramicrotome

An ultramicrotome consists of several essential components that work together to achieve precise sectioning:
  • Diamond Knife: The diamond knife is the most critical component of an ultramicrotome. It features a precisely crafted diamond edge that is extremely sharp and durable, allowing for the cutting of ultrathin sections without causing significant damage to the sample.
  • Sample Arm: The sample arm holds the resin block containing the embedded sample. It moves the sample towards the diamond knife in a controlled manner, with adjustable speed and increment size to achieve the desired section thickness.
  • Stereomicroscope: A stereomicroscope is mounted above the diamond knife to provide a magnified view of the sectioning process. It allows the operator to monitor the quality of the sections and make necessary adjustments.
  • Water Bath: A small water bath is attached to the edge of the diamond knife. As the sections are cut, they float on the surface of the water, preventing them from folding or curling. The sections are then collected from the water surface onto grids for microscopic analysis.

Sample Preparation for Ultramicrotomy

Proper sample preparation is crucial for successful ultramicrotomy. The sample must be embedded in a suitable resin that provides support and stability during sectioning. Common embedding resins include epoxy, acrylic, and melamine. The choice of resin depends on the nature of the sample and the desired analysis technique.
Before embedding, the sample may undergo various treatments, such as fixation, dehydration, and staining, to preserve its structure and enhance contrast. Once embedded, the resin block is trimmed to expose the surface of the sample and to create a small trapezoid-shaped face for sectioning.

Ultramicrotomy Techniques

Several ultramicrotomy techniques have been developed to cater to different sample types and analysis requirements:

Room Temperature Ultramicrotomy

Room temperature ultramicrotomy is the most common technique, suitable for a wide range of samples, including biological tissues and polymers. The sectioning is performed at ambient temperature, and the sections are collected onto grids for transmission electron microscopy (TEM) or other analytical techniques.


Cryoultramicrotomy involves sectioning samples at extremely low temperatures, typically below -100 °C. This technique is used for samples that are sensitive to room temperature or prone to deformation, such as soft materials or hydrated samples. The sample is rapidly frozen using liquid nitrogen or high-pressure freezing methods before sectioning.


Immunoultramicrotomy combines ultramicrotomy with immunolabeling techniques to localize specific proteins or antigens within the sample. The sections are collected onto grids and incubated with primary and secondary antibodies conjugated with gold particles. This technique allows for the visualization and spatial distribution of target molecules at the nanoscale.

Applications of Ultramicrotomy

Ultramicrotomy finds applications in various fields where nanoscale analysis of materials is essential:

Biological Sciences

Ultramicrotomy is widely used in biological sciences for the preparation of ultrathin sections of tissues, cells, and organelles. These sections are analyzed using TEM to study the ultrastructure and organization of biological systems at the nanoscale. Ultramicrotomy has been instrumental in unraveling the intricacies of cellular architecture, virus structure, and protein localization.

Materials Science

In materials science, ultramicrotomy is employed for the preparation of ultrathin sections of polymers, composites, and nanostructured materials. The sections are analyzed using various microscopy and spectroscopy techniques to investigate the morphology, composition, and properties of the materials at the nanoscale. Ultramicrotomy has been crucial in the development and characterization of advanced materials for applications such as energy storage, electronics, and biomedicine.


Ultramicrotomy plays a vital role in nanotechnology by enabling the preparation of ultrathin sections of nanomaterials. These sections are analyzed using high-resolution microscopy techniques, such as Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) and scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM), to study the structure, composition, and properties of nanomaterials at the atomic scale. Ultramicrotomy has been essential in the characterization and optimization of nanomaterials for various applications, including drug delivery, catalysis, and nanoelectronics.

Challenges and Future Perspectives

Despite its widespread use, ultramicrotomy still faces several challenges. One of the main challenges is the artifacts introduced during sectioning, such as compression, shearing, or knife marks. These artifacts can distort the original structure of the sample and complicate the interpretation of the results. Researchers are continuously developing new techniques and optimization strategies to minimize these artifacts and improve the quality of the sections.
Another challenge is the limited throughput of ultramicrotomy, as it is a manual and time-consuming process. Efforts are being made to automate ultramicrotomy and develop high-throughput sectioning methods to increase the efficiency and reproducibility of the technique.
Future advancements in ultramicrotomy will focus on improving the resolution and precision of the sectioning process. The development of novel diamond knife designs, such as ultra-sharp and ultra-thin knives, will enable the preparation of even thinner sections with minimal damage to the sample. The integration of advanced imaging and analysis techniques, such as cryo-electron tomography and correlative microscopy, will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the 3D structure and composition of the samples at the nanoscale.

Further Reading

MRS Online Proceedings Library, Ultramicrotomy for Materials Science