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

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Scientist with laptop operating a large scanner

'The largest scanner at the facility'

Prehistoric marine monsters, human tissue, aircraft wings and even fossilised crocodile dung are yielding their innermost secrets to a unique new X-ray Imaging Centre.

The facility has been officially opened at the University of Southampton. Supported by the EPSRC, the µ-VIS ('Micro-Vis') X-ray Imaging Centre produces high-resolution 3D images that enable the internal structures of objects to be studied in incredible detail, without needing to break the objects open or damage them.

The 3D images are built up from 2D X-ray projections of the object being examined. This technique - computed tomography (CT) - is already widely used in medicine and other fields. But the Centre, which is equipped with five different imaging systems, can complete scans with exceptional speed and handle larger objects than any other UK university facility.

Professor Ian Sinclair, the Centre's Director, says: It's our close integration of state-of-the-art imaging hardware, world-class computing and image processing expertise needed to turn the resulting 3D data into new scientific results that will allow us to break new ground.

There are many permutations of object type and size to consider, but for certain classes we can produce images 10 times faster than conventionally achievable and we're one of very few groups worldwide who can scan objects approaching 2m in length and 1m in width with a micro-focus X-ray source. The Centre will produce images enabling new insights to be secured in fields ranging from biomedical science to engineering, and from archaeology to modern environmental science.

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Facilities in the Centre have already:

  • Examined fossilised crocodile dung from Africa, providing insights into the local water conditions where bipedal apes may have first evolved.
  • Generated 3D images of bone grafts to show how they are 'taking' to human tissue, down to the level of individual blood vessel formation.
  • Scanned contemporary aircraft materials, from metre-scale wing sections down to the level of individual carbon fibres, revealing damage processes vital to future air safety.
  • Studied plant roots to understand how these might be affected by climate change and what this might mean for crop productivity and food security.
  • Begun examining the Staffordshire hoard which is the largest ever find of Anglo-Saxon gold.
  • Revealed the detailed bone structure of a 2.4m-long fossilised skull of a pliosaur (a marine predator from the Jurassic/Cretaceous period) found on the south coast.

With over 40 scientists from across the University of Southampton involved in its work, the Centre will enable the University's long-established reputation as a centre of excellence in CT to be consolidated and expanded further.

This Centre will be a real asset to the UK research community, says Professor Sinclair. 3D images of the kind we're producing will shed new light on all sorts of crucial issues, from keeping planes in the air to the impacts of climate change.

Notes for Editors

EPSRC is providing a total of £1.8 million in core funding support to the µ-VIS Centre over the period 2011-2016. This is being supplemented by funding of £0.3 million provided by the University of Southampton itself.

Data produced by one hour of CT scanning can require 10s to 100s of hours of analysis and processing to reveal and measure internal structures.

The bone graft scans undertaken by researchers at the Centre have secured a prestigious prize from the British Orthopaedic Association.

A micron is one millionth of a metre.

The Jurassic and Cretaceous periods collectively stretched from around 200 million to 65 million years ago.

The EPSRC is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

Researchers from the Archaeological Computing Research Group at the University of Southampton have been working with the new centre on a number of projects, including imaging the Staffordshire Hoard. The CT systems have been able to image the interior of corroded and damaged objects, and also enabled computer graphic simulations to be produced as a means of interpreting and presenting the remains.

Reference: PN 30-11