UCL updates x-ray for range of applications

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A five-year EPSRC funded project led by University College London has developed an x-ray imaging technology that is claimed to have applications ranging from healthcare and security to materials analysis.

The technique is called phase-contrast x-ray imaging. Instead of measuring the extent to which tissue or materials absorb radiation – as in conventional x-ray imaging – it measures the physical effect that passing through different types of tissue or material has on the speed of the x-ray itself.

The researchers say that, compared with conventional x-rays, the technology can enable the earlier identification of tumours in living tissue, while spotting smaller cracks and defects in materials. The approach can also identify different shapes and different types of matter – something which could only be achieved with conventional x-ray systems if prohibitively high doses of radiation were used.

UCL Professor Alessandro Olivo, who led the project team, said: “The technique has been around for decades, but has been limited to large-scale synchrotron facilities, such as Diamond Light Source. We’ve advanced this technology to make it viable for day-to-day use in medicine, security applications, industrial production lines, materials science, non-destructive testing, the archaeology and heritage sector, and a whole range of other fields.”

Under licence, Nikon Metrology UK has incorporated the technology into a prototype security scanner, which could provide enhanced threat detection against weapons and explosives concealed, for example, in baggage.

Meanwhile, a three year project supported by the Wellcome Trust will see Nikon and UCL, in collaboration with Barts Heath and Queen Mary University of London, develop a prototype scanner for use during breast cancer surgery.

Prof Olivo added: “This has the potential to be incredibly versatile, game-changing technology. We’re currently negotiating with a number of companies to explore how it could be put to practical use. There’s really no limit to the benefits this technique could deliver.”