By returning to the very basics of how a microscope forms an image, Aurox have built a very simple instrument to provide affordable 3D imaging for laboratory microscopes.
“We modify the illumination of the microscope so that we project a pattern of lines onto the specimen. It’s then a matter of clever optics and computer processing to reveal a thin, in-focus, optical section of the thick specimen,” says Professor Tony Wilson from Aurox. “We then physically focus through the whole thickness of the specimen recording these thin sections at each plane and to have a wonderful three-dimensional representation of the whole object.”
The product is now sold as an inexpensive add-on by Carl Zeiss that can be attached to any standard optical microscope making 3D microscopy accessible to individual researchers.
Oxfordshire-base Aurox is the winner of a 2012 Innovation Award from the Institute of Physics celebrating companies that make the most of applying physics in a commercial environment.
Prof Tony Wilson: Aurox is essentially an applied optics company building specialised three-dimensional microscope imaging instruments. The extra things that we need for the Aurox product to work are clearly the conventional microscope but also a CCD camera to capture the image. So we have partnered with two people on the one hand we have partnered with Carl Zeiss, who of course have the microscopes and we’ve also partnered with Andor plc, based in Belfast, who provide the high-resolution, high-specification CCD cameras. These are our two main routes to market.
By going back to the real basic physics of how a microscope forms an image, the kind of thing Ernst Abbe understood at the end of the 19th century, and ignoring all the recent work, one can really build a very simple instrument to provide three-dimensional imaging inexpensively and hence fits a niche in the microscope imaging market.
Dr Rimas Juskaitis: The way 3D microscopy typically works these days is that when the university buys a confocal microscope it doesn’t go into the lab, it does go into a central imaging facility and it’s because it’s big, expensive, needs to be maintained. Each individual researcher books time and does imaging in the central facility.
What Aurox is doing is providing an instrument which is small and inexpensive enough to be attached to a conventional microscope that an individual researcher will already have in his lab.
Prof Tony Wilson: With all optical microscopes if one looks at an image, a high resolution image of say a biological specimen, which will be a three-dimensional specimen, one ends up with a very good high-resolution, in-focus image of the part in the focal plane, with blurred bits above and below. And the whole idea of the Aurox product is to get rid of these blurred bits.
Dr Rimas Juskaitis: Going out into the real world and trying to actually convert your ideas into a product is a very big psychological step. It’s not to be taken lightly. The specifics of the product and how it has to work always first time, with not necessarily the best person operating it is very different from what you do in the lab for yourself, for a one-off experiment. And so I would say this was the most difficult part to get through.
Prof Tony Wilson: We modify the illumination of the microscope so that we project a pattern of lines onto the specimen. It’s then a matter of clever optics and computer processing to remove the parts of the specimen where there are no lines. It’s then a matter of removing the lines from this thin section near the optical focal plane and that will reveal a thin, in focus, optical section of the thick specimen. We then physically focus through the whole thickness of the specimen recording these thin sections at each plane and then we replay in the computer to have a wonderful 3-dimensional representation of the whole object.
Dr Rimas Juskaitis: We had a lot of work on our hands trying to persuade that this thing, for which you would pay perhaps a small percentage of what you would normally pay, can actually do as good a job as a bigger machine.
Prof Tony Wilson: The Aurox product is based on the fact that most people have a conventional microscope in their lab and so what we are trying to do is to add functionality to that microscope to provide 3-dimensional imaging. So I’m tremendously pleased that by our work in optics we are able to allow people in the biosciences to really explore the structure of living cells.
Dr Rimas Juskaitis: It’s a very satisfying experience when something that you worked on for many years first as a researcher and then as a developer, finally gets released into the outer world and you get very positive responses from the end users. I think this is the whole point of why we do this.
About the film
Filmed on location at:
- Aurox, Culham Science Centre, Culham, UK. September 2012.
Director: Martyn Bull
Producer: Thomas Delfs
Camera: Mark Whatmore
Editors: Liam Angell, Mike Willbourne
Cast: Professor Tony Wilson, Dr Rimas Juskaitis
Camera: RED Epic, Canon 550D