Boston College has been awarded a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to support a team of University researchers developing a new microscope that uses a light-guiding “metamedium” to create images that reveal micro- and macroscopic matter with significantly improved clarity.
The nanoscale coaxial optical microscope, or NCOM, would join a new class of microscopes known as “superlenses,” which function far differently than optical microscopes familiar to most people. These new devices use novel technologies to manipulate light, reconstruct it on computers or assemble bits of images to create one in its entirety.
The NCOM design will use a bundle of hundreds of nanoscale tubes similar in design to the coaxial cable that supplies TV, Internet and phone signals. The nanocoax design will allow the microscope to focus beams of light on the smallest matter, such as cells or proteins, and then return that light to a camera that presents the image.
“We’re excited by the opportunities this grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation provides and grateful for their support,” said principal investigator Ferris Professor of Physics Michael J. Naughton. “We believe our novel concepts and ideas on microscopy can lead to the development of the nanoscale coaxial optical microscope, which will have a far-reaching impact on scientific investigation.”
Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education. The foundation also maintains a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth. [For more information, see the foundation website http://www.wmkeck.org.]
In addition to Naughton, the research team includes Professor of Physics Krzysztof Kempa, Joshua Rosenberg, manager of the University’s microscopy imaging facility in Higgins Hall, and Greg McMahon, a researcher and nanolithography specialist in the University’s Clean Room Nanofabrication Facility.
Naughton and Kempa, in conjunction with Professor of Physics Zhifeng Ren, have been developing nanocoax technology for several years as a potential solar energy technology and to capture elusive “hot” electrons. The coaxial design makes it “thick” enough to capture electrons and “thin” enough to transport them before they dissipate. That design will allow the NCOM to focus small beams of light on matter and then guide photons along a converging array of nanocoaxes to deliver the image. BC holds several issued and pending patents related to the nanocoax technology.
The NCOM would exploit the unique properties of “metamaterials.” Fabricated using techniques and materials that enable them to interact in unique ways with waves of light, metamaterials exhibit capabilities that exceed the given properties used in their construction. Metamaterials have been used in light-bending experiments dubbed “invisibility cloaking”, where light is routed around a point, rendering it essentially invisible.
The team will use the University’s Clean Room to construct the metamaterials using nanofabrication techniques. McMahon said the process includes growing the material’s design on a wafer-like substrate, or platform, using a beam of ions, then incorporating additional materials and the hundreds of minute nanocoaxial tubes.
“The defining feature of the nanocoax is much like the central wire in your coaxial cable that feeds your television set,” said McMahon. “That’s what we’re making, except a million times smaller.”
Researchers have traditionally used electron microscopes to “see” matter using electron waves, which can be much shorter than light waves, or optically after a sample has been colored with fluorescent dyes. Rosenberg says the advantage of the NCOM will be the ability to examine matter using visible light – or photons – without the need to manipulate or stain the sample.
Where traditional microscopes offer a resolution that allows scientists to distinguish between two features as long as they are separated by 200 nanometers or more, the NCOM is projected to provide resolution of 20 nanometers. Without the need to manipulate or treat the sample, tissue could be examined in its living state, instead of in the vacuum of an electron microscope.
Rosenberg said the prospect of developing a new technology is thrilling. “Being able to be on the development side of a new optics system is very exciting,” said Rosenberg, whose imaging center serves scientists from across the University. “I use microscopes every day and to be involved on the design side building something that’s never been used, is a great opportunity.”
Naughton said the project is among the largest grants received by BC for integrated science research that brings together faculty and researchers from a number of departments or centers. He said the university’s commitment to integrated science has played a crucial role in competing for prestigious awards like the Keck Foundation funding.
“This is added recognition of the growing research and innovation portfolio at BC and one of the largest grants to date for integrated science at the University,” Naughton said. “This project benefits and capitalizes on the investments BC has made in its research infrastructure with the construction of the Clean Room. We could not get this grant nor do this work without the Clean Room facility. We are all looking forward to the work involved in this cutting-edge, collaborative project that will involve not only faculty and researchers, but engage our students as well.”