Nikon-UCL Prosperity Partnership on Next-Generation X-Ray Imaging

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Medical Physics and Biomedical Eng


X-Ray Imaging (XRI) has a fundamental role in medicine and security, and is instrumental in the automotive, aerospace, pharmaceutical industries and in manufacturing in general. Cultural heritage relies on XRI, as do materials science, biology, and many other scientific fields. Through our established collaboration between Nikon X-Tek Systems (NXTS, Nikon's UK based x-ray division) and UCL, we are targeting the next paradigm shift in XRI. Our vision is that this will involve the incorporation of phase effects in the image formation process ("Phase-based" XRI) coupled with energy-resolved ("colour") XRI and new data reconstruction and interpretation algorithms. "Colour" XRI could be seen as the x-ray equivalent of the transition from black and white to colour photography, meaning a much wider spectrum of information can be obtained from the imaged sample. Phase-based XRI enables contrast increases of up to two orders of magnitude, thus allowing the detection of features classically considered "x-ray invisible".

Our vision is to marry UCL's world-class research and expertise on phase-based XRI, inverse problems and nanofabrication with NXTS's innovation on scatter analysis, image reconstruction and colour x-ray imaging in order to achieve the next step change in XRI technology, with the UK industrial and academic communities firmly at the centre. This will deliver transformative solutions that are practicable in an industrial context and beneficial to a wide user base, while also enabling new science. Our ambition is to replace conventional attenuation based XRI with energy-resolved, phase-based technology combined with scatter retrieval and novel algorithms in most application areas.

At synchrotron facilities, UCL researchers have used phase-based XRI to image rocks, metals, tissues, animals, humans, cells, foams, fabrics, batteries, manufacturing processes, food, and heritage artefacts. They have done this statically and dynamically, in situ and in operando, in vivo and ex vivo, invariably detecting key features that were invisible to other methods. Making this available through standard, lab-size machines would be nothing short of a revolution, leading to economic and societal impact through the multi-disciplinary applications, making NXTS the commercial leader in the field, and cementing UK's leading research status. In our vision this will be strengthen even further by its combination with "colour" imaging, and with new ways of handling scattered radiation such that the "structured" scatter signal leading to additional information is exploited, while the uniform background that limits image contrast and therefore detail visibility is rejected.

We will pursue this vision through a combination of modelling and experimental work. Using experimentally validated simulation software developed jointly by the UCL and NXTS teams, we will model experiments before they are carried out, compare simulated and experimental results, refine models and setups until all discrepancies are clarified, and only then proceed to the next step. This will enable us to develop systems where i) we keep all parameters under control and have full understanding of their effects and implications, and ii) we can steer the design towards effective solutions to specific problems. Cutting-edge nanofabrication methods (available at UCL's Photonic Innovations Lab and London Centre for Nanotechnology) will enable the development of beam modulators that allow the exploitation of phase effects with the conventional x-ray sources routinely used by NXTS.

We will apply the novel technologies to a range of high-impact applications, including non-destructive testing of composite materials and additive manufacturing processes and products, biomaterials and tissue-engineered organs, digital histology, improved detection of concealed explosives and forensics.

Planned Impact

The areas this partnership will have impact on are wide and diverse. X-Ray Imaging (XRI) has a fundamental role not just in medicine and security, but also in the automotive, aerospace, pharmaceutical industries and in manufacturing in general. These are all key areas of the UK's Industrial Strategy, and indeed advanced imaging underpins many of the themes highlighted by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and by Sector Deals such as those in life sciences, automotive, creative industries. Moreover, cultural heritage relies on XRI, as do materials science, biology, and many other scientific fields. We expect this partnership to deliver impact on all of these fields, and to keep the UK on the forefront of the development of new imaging techniques. Through the close interaction between academic and industrial researchers, it will deliver innovation that can be directly applied to real world problems, with UK Plc set to reap the benefits. It will enable the UK's leading manufacturer of x-ray micro-CT systems to rise from its current position as world's third to world's first, and re-invigorate the entire field of non-destructive testing by opening opportunities to test and detect features which are currently inaccessible. It will create a knock-on beneficial effect on neighbouring industries such as x-ray sensors (with some of the UK's leading companies involved in the programme from the beginning) and microfabrication. This will result in both wealth and job creation. It will also deliver a unique, inter-disciplinary training opportunity for students and early career researchers in this area, and reach out at the general public and policymakers through an intense engagement activity.

Notable example of application areas include:
- Industry, e.g. for assessing and monitoring processes and products in additive manufacturing;
- Medicine, e.g. for the detection of life-threatening diseases such as cancer;
- Energy, e.g. for understanding failure mechanisms and developing fail-safe batteries;
- Security, e.g. for higher detection rate of threat objects at airports, with fewer false alarms.
The key strategy we will pursue to deliver this impact is through the creation of a consortium around the NXTS/UCL partnership to ensure maximum development, application and ultimately exploitation of the developed technologies. As far as applications to industry and energy are concerned, NXTS already has an impressive customer base, including many leading UK companies such as Rolls Royce and Mc Laren. Recently, NXTS has expanded their range of interests to include significant aspects in biomedicine and in the life sciences in general. This is an area where the UCL team is particularly strong, and has a wide range of collaborators both at UCL and beyond (for a partial list see, who will act as "champions" for the various biomedical applications and provide the required, relevant samples. The NXTS and UCL teams have also recently engaged with various Authorities to look into the development of solutions for security, especially as far as the detection of concealed explosives is concerned. This wide range of multidisciplinary contacts will enable us to create a community of stakeholders and opinion leaders, facilitating the realisation of impact in all its forms.

Importantly, industry will not be the only beneficiary. For example in medical applications, clinicians will have access to better diagnostic tools, the NHS and other health services worldwide could reduce costs and provide better healthcare and, ultimately and most importantly, the patients would receive better care leading to improved life quality/expectancy. A similarly "multilayered" impact is expected in most of the other application areas, e.g. through improved security at airports or the availability of better industrial products.