19 Feb 2007
High-performance microchannel plate photomultipliers developed for use in space could have a wealth of terrestrial applications from drug screening through to environmental science, as Jon Lapington tells James Tyrrell.
How did you become interested in MCP technology?
I started working on microchannel plate (MCP) detectors at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UK, which is University College London's Department of Space and Climate Physics, and became involved in a number of European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA missions. In 2000, I moved to the Centre for Space Physics at Boston University, US, as a payload manager. I returned to the UK in 2003, and in 2004 began working at Leicester University's Space Research Centre.
I'm still involved in space missions, but we are becoming increasingly aware of new roles for our MCP detectors on the ground, particularly in the field of life-sciences. In general, we find that people don't know what our MCP detectors are capable of.
What can MCP technology offer?
MCP detectors are sensitive to electrons, ions and photons, and offer single-event detection with low noise. In simple terms, an MCP is a wafer of glass comprising an array of pores that can be as small as 2 μm in diameter. The top and bottom surfaces of the wafer are each covered with an electrode and a high voltage is applied between them. When operated in a vacuum, the pores act as an amplifier – you put one electron in and get 104 electrons out per MCP. We can achieve spatial resolutions of less than 10 μm and timing resolutions of around 10 to 20 ps for a single electron, ion or photon.
MCP detectors suit applications in a wide range of fields that require photon timing and correlation, and probably the most important of these are in biology and medicine. For example, techniques such as fluorescence lifetime imaging and Forster resonance energy transfer, which are enabled by MCP-like detectors, have major roles in proteomics.
Following on from genomics, proteomics is the next holy grail of biomedical research. MCP technology allows you to tag a protein and see what is happening dynamically in a cell while it is still alive. In the past, researchers have had to break things apart. Proteomics is still in its infancy, but we are developing detectors that will hopefully bring the technique on. The technology is also very useful for drug screening as you can analyse a lot of very similar compounds and look out for the right reaction.
What's the best way to transfer technology across disciplines?
To define a winning device you need a combination of researcher, developer, end user and manufacturer, and it is essential to get all of these people working together. I'm currently involved in a project to develop an MCP detector that is going to be equivalent to a thousand photomultiplier tubes all put together in a package with an active diameter of just 18 mm. The goal is to create an engine for next-generation biomedical tools. As well as the team here in Leicester, our partners include CERN, Gray Cancer Institute, Manchester University's pharmaceutical science department and UK firm Photek.
How important is networking to technology transfer?
Networking is absolutely crucial to finding end users and industrial partners. A few years ago we were looking to create a centre of excellence in 3D photon and particle-counting technologies and I applied for basic technology funding. The application was unsuccessful, but it turns out that all of the subsequent projects that were funded have sprung from those initial contacts.
When I arrived at Leicester, I actually went through a cold-calling exercise to find people who would be interested in the technology and establish contacts in new fields that I hadn't dealt with before. It proved to be an incredibly valuable exercise.
I don't think that there is enough communication across scientific boundaries. Things are beginning to happen, but there are still many more opportunities out there if you can make the contacts. The UK government's Knowledge Transfer Networks are useful, but I think more funding should be made available for networking. Funding the individual who really wants to go out there and promote the uptake of their research would really help to drive the networking process and make it much more focused. Certainly for me, this would have made things much easier and I believe could have made our work even more successful.
• This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.
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