Transcript for X-ray vision takes centre stage at unique new UK facility

Narrator

Three dimensional X-ray vision is no longer just the domain of fictional characters like Superman. For Professor Ian Sinclair and his team at the University of Southampton, it’s all in a day’s work. Using something called Computer Tomography, they could find themselves doing anything from gazing into the jaws of an enormous fossilised sea creature, to looking at the less appealing intricacies of a land fill site.

Professor Ian Sinclair [IS]

The term tomography essentially means looking at something by slicing through it, but the nice thing about Computer Tomography, as we perform it you don’t actually have to cut the thing up to see those slices. And in fact, if you can take many slices of something all at once, you then get a 3D image of what is inside it, again without cutting it up.

The centre offers the single largest high energy, high resolution Computer Tomography capability in UK universities. The further important thrust of the work is not just scale. It’s going to be the numbers of samples that we can put through. In addition to the very large scanning machine, we have another device sitting beside it that will handle smaller objects. In that machine, we can basically scan at a rate that’s about ten times faster than what comparable systems around the UK, or indeed around the world, can typically achieve today. But we have made a point of wrapping the whole system up. It’s not just the scanner, it’s the computing hardware and the analysis software that we’re integrating together into a complete workflow where the overall productivity, end to end, the main question to the main answer, will just be faster than it is elsewhere. So certainly in terms of the UK for throughput, it will be the best in the UK that I am aware of.

Narrator

The centre is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. It’s been used in an incredible array of projects including examination of the Staffordshire hoard, which is the largest ever find of Anglo-Saxon gold, bone grafting techniques in medicine, the structure of plant roots and how they may respond to climate change in the future and the development of human health and disease. However even this list doesn’t begin to cover everything.

[IS]

We have rubbish, real rubbish in landfill sites being pulled up. This is a very important engineering challenge to understand the behaviour of landfill. We have work on gas hydrates, huge impact for energy resource - possibly? Huge impact on climate - possibly? Its answering the ‘possibly’ that can be part of what the centre is involved in. We are doing innovative, absolutely world-leading work on the performance of composites for structures of a great variety of applications. We have pieces of wind turbine, pieces of cars, pieces of trains, pieces of the things that trains run on whereby using CT to the level that we can look at an aeroplane wing, and if we really, really need to we find individual carbon fibres. We can understand composite structures, load them and cause them to fail, understand those failures, and produce new models of a form that will reliably allow engineers to design with these materials in a way that they cannot do at the minute.

Narrator

One of the most exciting projects to go behind the four ton door of the largest scanner is an enormous fossilised skull of a pliosaur found on the Jurassic coast of England.

[IS]

A pliosaur is a fearsome beast, understood to be in its full form something like 17 metres long and having seen the skull laid out, I would say imagine the biggest crocodile you could imagine and then add two or three times to that size. The pieces are large lumps of rock and it is of considerable interest to take the small bits that the skull has become broken down into, scan them, get the exact structure, and then digitally reconstruct it and see what it was like when it was intact. We can also see the internal structure in considerable fidelity, we can pick out where blood vessels, nerve channels would have lain, where tendons would have been holding the whole thing together, where teeth sockets went right down into. There’s only a handful that have been found in the world and the skull we have represents one of the most intact and least deformed and therefore is a very valuable resource to gain information from.

 

Narrator

New insight into the evolution of man is being provided by an unusual find on an archaeological dig in Africa.

[IS]

This is an extremely interesting story of an uninspiring brown lump of rock being brought to the lab with the notion that it may, or may not, have been a fossilised crocodile poo. The story goes that this was found in an area of Africa where apes that were ancestors to hominids - humans - had been found, were known to live, and it was felt to be very important to understand what conditions and what environment they lived in, particularly, was there water, were there lakes around, were there marshes around. The underlying question is, was living in and around water one of the driving forces for apes becoming two-legged and subsequently evolving into human kind as we are now. I had visions of a ‘Tom and Jerry’ style fish skeleton being inside there and that would prove it. We imaged it and came to the conclusion it was a crocodile poo. And this strange small lump of uninspiring nature turns out to be part of a much larger picture of human development and human evolution.

Narrator

In the long-term who knows what other uses the centre could be put to? A bit like Superman’s powers, it seems the possibilities are endless.

[IS]

There are so many opportunities. It seems to be limitless at times. I have used the terminology to people of imagining having Superman’s instant 3D x-ray vision. In a way, that’s what this gives you – something akin to that can be achieved.