The University of Southampton

Shining Light on the Unseen: Southampton Secures Grant to Build an X-Ray Microscope

Published: 11 June 2024

The University of Southampton has recently secured a substantial £4.6 million strategic equipment grant to pioneer the development of an innovative x-ray microscope from Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Led by Professor Jeremy Frey from the School of Chemistry and bolstered by the expertise of Dr. Bill Brocklesby from the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), this project is also supported by the Rosalind Franklin Institute and the UK Central Laser Facility (CLF).

Over the next four years, this grant will fund the construction of an x-ray microscope, marking a significant departure from traditional light-based microscopy techniques. Once completed, the microscope will be housed in the Research Complex at Harwell.

Bill expressed his enthusiasm, explaining: “This grant will allow us to apply the techniques that we’ve developed since this collaboration was started by the ‘Basic Technologies’ programme two decades ago.”

Jeremy added: “The grant is a good example of the collaboration between the University and the Harwell Campus. The Harwell site is ideal for the instrument development because of the synergies with the imaging technologies available at the RFI, Diamond, ISIS and the CLF alongside the extensive computational facilities.”

Professor Angus Kirkland, Science Director for Correlated Imaging at the Rosalind Franklin Institute, also said: “This project is exactly what the Rosalind was set up to enable – it will create the order of magnitude increase in both spatial resolution and data acquisition time, which will enable the imaging of hydrated samples with minimal sample damage. It represents a transformative leap forward in imaging technology. We are looking forward to working with colleagues at University of Southampton, the Central Laser Facility, and the Research Complex at Harwell to make this instrument a reality.”

Using x-rays in microscopy offers numerous advantages, notably its capacity to penetrate materials, revealing finer details and internal structures. This instrument will rely on ptychography, a technique in which measurement of the coherently scattered x-rays (coherent diffractive imaging) enables computer algorithms to reconstruct images without using lenses.

The crux of the challenge lies in generating the necessary x-rays. Bill elaborated: “Leveraging the ORC’s laser expertise, we use ultra-powerful femtosecond lasers to generate these x-rays. The intensity of these lasers is such that it can break the atoms apart, resulting in the production of x-rays.”

The applications of this technology extend to healthcare, where the microscope’s level of detail and ability to work in the x-ray water window can reveal intricate structures invisible to conventional methods, such as imaging neurons. With a resolution below 10 nanometres and the capacity to probe depths of tens of microns, this instrument will facilitate unprecedented insights into the internal structures of cells.

Bill emphasised the importance of this advancement: “As an example, understanding the structure of neurons as they develop is crucial in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's. A tool of this calibre gives us a new way to study these structural changes.”

Ultimately, this instrument will become part of the CLF user facilities, boasting open access, fostering collaboration and accelerating scientific progress.

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