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imec developing ultra-small on-chip microscopy platform

31 Jul 2018

Grant from the ERC will support project combining CMOS imager technology and integrated photonics.

Imec, the Leuven-based research hub for nanoelectronics and digital technologies, has received a grant of €1.5 million from the European Research Council (ERC) to support a new research project developing ultra-small microscopes.

Project leader Niels Verellen commented that the goal was to enable high-resolution, robust and ultra-compact microscopy technology based upon on-chip photonics and CMOS image sensors. This technology could pave the way for multiple applications of cell imaging in life sciences, biology, and medicine, as well as compact, cost-effective DNA sequencing instruments.

"Compact, high-resolution high-throughput microscopy devices will induce a profound change in the way cell biologists do research, in the way DNA sequencing becomes more accessible, in the way certain diseases can be diagnosed, and allow healthcare workers to diagnose patients in remote areas," he said.

The specific microscopy platform for which the ERC grant was awarded is termed Integrated high-Resolution On-Chip Structured Illumination Microscopy (IROCSIM), a new technology from imec based on the integration of active on-chip photonics and CMOS image sensors.

Imec's work on lens-free digital microscopy technology has previously shown how the interference pattern created between light illuminating an object and light that diffracts off it can be gathered with a digital image sensor and processed into a detailed image. IROCSIM, however, represents a different approach to the challenge of ultra-small microscopes.

"Imec has been developing compact lens-free microscopy for some time, but IROCSIM is a completely new concept using the combination of CMOS imager technology and integrated photonics," Verellen told Optics.org. "We are now bringing both the illumination path and detection path into a single monolithically integrated chip, also lens-free. By using structured illumination we aim at sub-diffraction limited resolution."

Societal impact

An important distinguishing factor between the IROCSIM concept and existing lens-free technology is that Verellen's project will explicitly focus on fluorescence microscopy, a key imaging modality and the subject of Nobel Prize awards in super-resolution techniques - but one where miniaturization concepts have not yet been demonstrated, Verellen commented.

"ERC Starting Grants are awarded up to €1.5 million for a period of five years," Verellen commented. "The majority of this budget will be used to set up a team of PhD and postdoctoral researchers, and to take care of the fabrication of prototype systems in the imec 200mm pilot-line cleanroom."

The drive behind IROCSIM is the societal impact likely to come from such small high-resolution systems, and their potential ability to facilitate diagnosis and treatment of disorders such as meningitis, malaria, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. They will also allow DNA analysis to become a standard procedure in cancer treatment, post-transplant care, the microbiome, and even agriculture and archeology.

"Whereas existing microscopy techniques today suffer from a trade-off between equipment size, field-of-view, and resolution, the IROCSIM solution will eliminate the need for bulky optical components and enable microscopy in the smallest possible form-factor, with a scalable field-of-view and without compromising the resolution,” said Verellen.

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