Scientists at the University of Sheffield have developed an innovative way to take images of atoms in living cells without using a lens. They now plan to develop the ultimate x-ray microscope, which could be used to take high-resolution 3D images of any molecular structure.
Professor John Rodenburg and colleagues from the University΄s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, in collaboration with Swiss Paul Scherrer Institut, have been able to greatly enhance the image capability of existing x-ray microscopes without using a lens.
They have now received a £4.3 million Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) grant to develop the new x-ray microscope together with similar methods in electron and visible light microscopy.
In traditional microscopes a lens is used to produce a magnified image. This method relies on the waves that make up the radiation, for example light, to interfere with one another to build up the image. However, the tiniest error in the lens can make the waves interfere incorrectly, ruining the image. For this reason, a typical x-ray microscope image is about one hundred times more blurred than it should be.
The Sheffield scientists have developed a new technique which uses diffraction patterns collected from different areas of the object to provide information about how the object has scattered the X-rays. They then use these patterns, along with computing programs based on a mathematical algorithm, to give a complete picture of the structure. This means that objects of any size or shape can be imaged at high-quality.
Professor Rodenburg said: "The technique has revolutionary implications for x-ray imaging of individual atoms in any structure. The key development is that we can now use a computer to calculate the phase of the high-resolution data – something which could never be seen by the lens alone.
"It is even possible to contemplate a solid-state optical microscope, built into a single chip with no optical elements at all. All the weakness, difficulties and costs of lenses would be therefore replaced by a combination of good quality detectors and computers."
He added: "Our ultimate aim is to be able to take high resolution 3D images of any molecular structure, using the ultimate X-ray or electron microscope."
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