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Next-gen nanoscopes can take super-res images of the atomic world - Dr Singh Ahluwalia

Compact photonic chips will be able to be used with any standard optical microscope. Image credit - Geir Antonsen

With some nanoscopes costing EUR 1 million it’s not cheap examining the world at an atomic level, but according to Dr Balpreet Singh Ahluwalia, from the Arctic University of Norway, photonic circuits could offer researchers a cost-effective way to delve deeper into the nano world.

Nanoscopy is still a relatively young research field, but the technology you developed is already revolutionising it. Can you tell us a bit more about your invention?

‘For the past 150 years people believed that microscopes cannot see images below 200 nanometres. They thought that was an established fact – all the new knowledge in the field has been acquired.

‘In 2007, when I started working on my idea, nanoscopy was still in its infancy so the timing was right to try new things. Today, I successfully introduced a cheap and more effective alternative to the conventional nanoscopes currently available, which can cost between EUR 500 000 and EUR 1 million.’

How exactly does your alternative nanoscope work?

‘Currently, advanced microscopes are complex and costly. They are used to shape and deliver the specialised laser illumination patterns required to achieve high-resolution images.

‘In this type of microscope, the sample is placed on top of a simple glass slide or cover slip. I proposed an inverse solution, where the sample is placed on top of a complex photonic chip and images are acquired using a standard optical microscope. The photonic chip is used both to hold the sample, like a glass cover slide, and to deliver the required illumination pattern to achieve the super-resolution images.

‘This alleviates the need for sophisticated laser illumination and consequently any standard optical microscope can be used with our photonic chip. Integrated photonic chips can also be used to generate any exotic set of illumination patterns, which is very difficult to achieve with conventional solutions.

‘Our long-term goal is to retrofit the highest possible number of standard optical microscopes with the novel photonic chip and convert them into high-resolution optical nanoscopes.’

Your chip is smaller and more manageable than any other nanoscope, but how is it also cheaper?

‘These photonic chips can be mass produced by semi-conductor foundries (factories) and are similar to silicon chips that are inside our mobile phones. Therefore, their cost is significantly lower, within the tens of euros.

‘We hope that this advantage will increase the penetration of optical nanoscopy to the developing world. In research environments where resources are limited, most labs are equipped with low-quality optical microscopes because the upfront costs of nanoscopes are prohibitive.’

You said that your photonic chip is not only a cheaper alternative to laser nanoscopes, but also more effective. What applications could it lead to?

‘Besides being more compact, stable and affordable, our chip-based nanoscope also captures images over extremely large fields of view. It can acquire super-resolved images from a field of view 100 times larger than what can be presently achieved using commercial optical nanoscopy systems.

‘This could prove a game-changer in fields such as pathology, where you have to analyse samples with a surface of several square millimetres. An average optical microscope will scan an area of 50 microns at a time, so it would take days to scan an entire pathology sample (such as tissue, blood or urine). 

‘Our local research team, in collaboration with the medical department, is currently working on the liver, trying to understand how filtration within the cells works. Until now, this could not be done because the specialised cells have small holes, or nanoholes, which are around 50-200 nanometres wide. You can’t see that with a normal microscope.’

‘This could prove a game-changer in fields such as pathology, where you have to analyse samples with a surface of several square millimetres.’

Dr Balpreet Singh Ahluwalia, Arctic University of Norway

Your research was part of an EU-funded project called NANOSCOPY - do you have a business plan to scale-up your innovation?

‘I was lucky to have the right financial support from the EU’s European Research Council (ERC) that chose to invest in my high-risk, high-return research project.

‘We are now in touch with potential manufacturers, and our business case is strong. Imagine a coffee machine – the customer only needs to replace the coffee, which is much cheaper than buying a brand new machine every time you fancy an espresso.

‘So it's the same principle, the initial barrier to the technology is very low, compared to what exists at the moment. Until now you had to have EUR 500 000 to buy a nanoscope, but now you just need to add a chip to your inexpensive microscope and adapt the laser input.’

Does your scientific approach come from your background or a particular experience in your life?

‘My personal journey has left me with the very strong belief that the place where you work or study is not important, the people are important. I studied different subjects in various labs all over the world, and the teams I met along the way provided a unique mix of perspectives on any scientific dilemma.

‘I grew up in a small town in India called Varanasi, also called Kashi, it is the oldest city of India – it's very ancient with a very distinctive culture. My mother always told me that scientists travel a lot and have an adventurous life which gives them opportunities to also help people. During my university studies I was sure that I wanted to be a researcher, but I did not have the possibility to study in the US like most Indian students who want to further their education abroad, because after the 9/11 terror attacks the frontiers were closed for a while. So I chose to study in Singapore first and did my PhD at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), after that I relocated to Norway and had lived and worked for a one year in the UK and USA. Presently, I work in Norway where I fell in love with Europe.

‘While my somehow unconventional career path led me to see a problem through a creative lens, much of my success has been made possible by the very diverse group that we have (here in Norway). Our group includes people from almost all the continents, from Asia to Africa and the Americas. We have researchers with a chemistry background, pure biology, from bio-optics, physics and engineering. So we have a multidisciplinary group as well as a multi-ethnic group and I think it's very important because we need people with diverse expertise to curate various sides of the project.’

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