Looking at sand under a microscope

Most people think of sand as the largely unremarkable mass under your thongs on a beach. 

Look closer though and you’ll find that each and every grain is a miniature work of art.

Every patch of sand has its own character and history. You can find everything from tiny, polished gemstones and volcanic glass to fragments of ancient sea creatures.

But how do you get the best look at sand?

With a trusty microscope, of course.

What sort of microscope do you need?

Grains of sand, while small, are still visible to the naked eye.

So, you won’t need the 1000x standard compound microscope that you often find in high schools. Instead, a stereo microscope is the way to go.

Stereo microscopes are designed for viewing bigger specimens, such as minerals, electronics and sand. They tend to have magnifications between 5x and 45x.

What makes them special though is depth perception.

Other microscopes produce a flat 2D image. Stereo microscopes, however, have 2 separate, slightly different, optical pathways – one for each eye. This gives you a unique 3D view of your sample that far better captures its qualities and structure.

They’re also compatible with darkfield illumination, a popular and very useful method of observing transparent specimens, such as grains of sand.

Instead of shining light directly through your sample into the lens, using darkfield illumination, the light shines through at an oblique angle that would ordinarily miss the lens.

Sand observed using Dark Field technique

Only the light that is scattered by the internal structures of your sample enter the lens, producing a vibrant and beautiful image of the interior against a dark background.

Recommended microscopes

If you’re interested in a microscope for viewing sand, here are a couple of suggestions to suit any budget.

The Optico ASZ-100 Stereo Microscope

This model is a good entry-level stereo microscope.

It has two magnification settings – 20x and 40x – and comes with widefield eyepieces to give you a larger field of view. It has bright LED illumination both above and below the stage and can be equipped with a darkfield setup.

It’s portable and can run off the included rechargeable batteries, so it’s a great choice for fieldwork or excursions. And of course, it’s very reasonably priced at $395.

The ASZ-400B Stereo Zoom Microscope

For the enthusiast or professional, the ASZ-400B is a more powerful alternative.

This model has a freely adjustable magnification range of 10x to 45x, excellent wide-field eyepieces, and an array of adjustable LED lights above and below the stage. As with the entry-level counterpart above, darkfield illumination is available.

The ASZ-400B can also come in a trinocular configuration. It has a third eyepiece to which you can attach a camera, allowing you to capture images or video.

As you might expect of a professional instrument, this model has a sturdier construction that is resistant to dust, mould and electrostatic charges.

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