UW News

October 24, 2014

Large X-ray scanner to produce 3-D images for labs across campus

UW News

A state-of-the-art imaging machine is coming to the University of Washington for use by researchers in a variety of disciplines.

The large X-ray computed tomography scanner, also known as a CT scanner, can penetrate steel, concrete, bone –even nanofabricated electronic sensors and microchips – to generate high-resolution, three-dimensional images. The instrument will let researchers see virtual slices of the insides of objects at high resolution, capturing a level of visual detail often not possible with current lab equipment.

A photo of an example of a scanner.

A similar X-ray scanner soon will be at the UW.North Star Imaging

“This has the potential to be an interdisciplinary piece of research equipment that we think will be really valuable for the university as a whole,” said Jeffrey Berman, a UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering who is leading the project. “I think it will get a lot of use.”

Researchers across campus will be able to use the machine to answer questions such as how concrete and steel components are damaged in earthquakes, what the inside of a 3-D printed object looks like, and how models of the skulls and jawbones of mammals can shed light on their diet changes over time.

The scanner arrives next spring and will be the only publicly available 3-D scanner of its size in the Pacific Northwest, Berman said. It also will be available for researchers at other schools in the region to use. The National Science Foundation recently awarded the UW a $1 million grant to buy the equipment.

The machine works like the familiar 3-D CT scanners in many hospitals and clinics, but comes enclosed in a 10-foot cube. Objects are placed inside the box, where a robot rotates and spins them to allow the instrument to X-ray through the object at various angles. A computer then digitally reconstructs the object in 3-D with resolution as small as 2 microns, about one-fiftieth the diameter of a human hair.

There are no health risks or concerns from scanning because the machine is enclosed in a steel lead case.

A crack, only several micrometers thick, is seen on an X-ray CT image in a composite material.

A crack, only several micrometers thick, is seen on an X-ray CT image in a composite material.Univ. of South Carolina

The idea for the scanner came from Berman’s structural engineering group in civil engineering. He and his colleagues often test large components of infrastructure for their resistance to earthquakes and other loads. This scanner will help researches see cracks and damage in key components that are not visible on the surface, ultimately leading to recommendations for safer structural design, Berman said.

Berman also heard from colleagues across campus in biology and anthropology labs and at the Burke Museum who want to analyze large skeletal pieces, fossils and animal remains. Aerospace researchers were curious about the internal structure of composite materials that are known to crack in places that are hard to see from the outside.

High-resolution fiber bundles are seen in a CT scan image of a composite material.

High-resolution fiber bundles are seen in a CT scan image of a composite material.Univ. of South Carolina

In Patricia Kramer’s lab, anthropology students will use the CT scanner to see changes in the relationship among the bones of human feet while force is applied to them. This will help her team understand the foot structure of our hominin ancestors, which is different from anything alive today.

“The most exciting thing that I think will come of having this machine on campus is that our students and other scholars from diverse fields will be able to work side by side,” Kramer said. “This opportunity allows us to do exactly what a great university is supposed to do – open doors for people to rooms full of ideas, in fields that they didn’t know existed.”

Initially, several technicians at the UW will operate the machine, then train graduate students to take full control of the scans for their labs and research groups.

“A fair amount of experimentation will need to happen to get the best scan for your application,” Berman said, adding that different materials will require different resolutions and light intensities during the X-ray scans.

Along with the National Science Foundation, a number of UW units funded this project, including the Office of Research, the College of Engineering, the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of the Environment, and the departments of civil and environmental engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, biology, anthropology and Earth and space sciences.