Researchers sharpen X-ray vision

Researchers in Switzerland have found a way to get better X-ray images using standard equipment in hospitals and airports. In the journal Nature Materials, researchers from the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne report a new method of manipulating conventional X-ray tubes to provide more detailed images, known as dark-field images. Dark-field imaging is able to show the scattering of radiation within the materials, and as such is able to expose details such as bone density, hairline fractures and cancer or plaque cells in soft tissue. Previously, such images required crystal optics, which only work for a single X-ray wavelength, and could only be produced at certain facilities. "Our new technique uses novel X-ray optical components, in the form of nanostructured gratings, that permit the use of a broad energy spectrum, including the standard range of energies in traditional X-ray equipment used in hospitals or airports," said PSI researcher Christian David. "This opens up the possibility for adapting current imaging equipment to include dark-field imaging."

Medically, the researchers say, the finding can help with early detection of medical conditions such as osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease and breast cancer. The researchers said the finding could also have positive implications for security screening. For example, current X-ray systems have trouble discerning the difference between explosives and food products such as cheese or chocolate. But "because of the differences in the microstructure of the materials and the correspondingly different signatures in the scattering behaviour, a distinction between the food product and the explosives becomes possible on the basis of the dark-field image," the researchers wrote. The technology also may have industrial uses, such as finding small fractures and corrosion in structures such as airplanes and boats.

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