The University of Southampton

Physicist awarded 2.2 million euros to advance next generation microscopic imaging

Published: 13 December 2019
X-ray imaging can reveal the microscopic scales on butterfly wings

Microscopic imaging techniques targeted at life-saving health, industrial and academic applications will be developed through new research at the University of Southampton.

Physicist Dr Pierre Thibault has been awarded a €2.2 million Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to develop his cutting-edge research into X-ray imaging and tomography.

The project will use advanced methods to enable experts to diagnose breast cancer earlier, read ancient scrolls that were damaged by Vesuvius during the Roman Empire and design aeroplanes that are fully carbon fibre.

"X-rays are hard to focus and hard to manipulate," Pierre says. "The techniques I am developing solve this problem by removing the need for lenses or complicated optics. One of them is called ptychography and is a technique that has been in use in X-rays for about 10 years. It's a method that provides high contrast and high resolution, down to the nanometre scale. I am working on making it more efficient, to take ptychography to the next generation."

Ptychography enables scientists to see the tiniest details - details that are invisible to the naked eye, such as the scales on a butterfly's wings. Pierre is combining ptychography with tomography, a technique that turns a 2D image into 3D.

His research will develop new theoretical and experimental tools that look at the nanoscopic structure of carbon fibre to determine fibre orientation.

Understanding how fibres are put together is vital in the construction of aircraft, where engineers must know if there are any kinks or waves in the structure. “Parts of aircrafts are already constructed using carbon fibre, but more powerful characterisation methods could enable the material to be more widely used" Pierre explains.

He also plans to examine fragile heritage documents that cannot be analysed by other methods, such as papyrus scrolls that were damaged by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The new technology has the potential to deliver currently unseen insight to health professionals. "Breast cancer tumours are difficult to pick up early with mammograms, but the methods we develop could allow medical doctors to detect tumours earlier on" he says.

The ERC Consolidator Grant will bring in €2.2 million over five years. Pierre will employ two postdoctoral researchers and three postgraduates to work on the project, which will start in September 2020.

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