Creating a new type of chip-sized optical microscope with high resolution capabilities is the challenge of ChipScope, a European project led by the University of Barcelona which counts with the participation of SMEs, universities and research institutes from five European countries. The objective is to develop the necessary science and technology to see extremely small structures such as viruses, DNA molecules or the inside of cells, in real time and without the disadvantages of the current high resolution techniques.
The 4-year length project is funded with 3,75 million euros by the call Future and Emerging Technologies (FET Open) , a program focused on current research developing breakthrough technologies.
The project ChipScope will be conducted between January 2017 and December 2020, led by the University of Barcelona and with the participation of the Braunschweig University of Technology (Germany), the University of Rome Tor Vergata, the company Expert Ymaging (Barcelona), the Austrian University of Technology, the Medical University of Vienna and the Swiss Foundation for Research in Microtechnology.
Overcoming the limits of diffraction
The minimum distance to distinguish two independent elements with a microscope is 200 nm: that is, the size of about five hundred times less a human hair. Proteins, DNA molecules or internal cell structures are even smaller, and therefore, cannot be directly seen with common optical microscopes. "At the moment, these kind of observations under the called diffraction limit are only possible with complex and expensive electronic microscope which, in addition, end up destroying the sample" says ángel Diéguez, member of the Research Group of Instrumentation Systems and Communication (SIC) of the UB and coordinator of the project.
The aim of ChipScope is to develop a new type of miniature microscope that enables observing samples under that diffraction limit and with no need of altering the sample. To do so, researchers will adopt a different perspective compared to the common microscopes: "The idea is that the resolution has to depend more on the light source than the optical detection system. That is, instead of an only source of light, like it happens with current high resolution microscopes, we will use hundreds of miniature light sources", says ángel Diéguez, whose group is expertized in the development of miniature microcircuits.
World's smallest LEDS
This approach will involve the creation of the world's smallest LEDs (about 50nm), which will be the light source for the new microscope. These nanoLEDs will be regularly spaced at nanometric distances in a matrix that will be the basis for the new tool. When the nanoLEDs are switched on separately and at a high speed, this regular activity will enable us knowing which information comes from which position of the observed object. A highly sensitive photodetector will detect these signals so that a real time image of the object can be transferred.
"The theoretical base of the project was already thought of in the sixties, but in order to work on those ideas, they needed microchips, LEDs and the ability to build those nanometric-sized objects and place them in order", says Daniel Prades, member of the Research Group Micro-and-nanotechnologies for Electronics and Photonics (MIND), which is also part of this project.
Technology to set new science up
Creating a microscope with such features will open new ways in scientific research, both for the advances in technological miniaturization and the new physical effects to be studied in order to carry the project out. Moreover, this is a technology that will allow -once it gets finished- "to imagine new experiments". "Having a microscope of this size will provide the opportunity of measuring things in conditions that were impossible so far. This technology will set new science up, since it will enable creating new experiments, such as observing places you could never get into with an optical microscope", says Daniel Prades.
The first tests with the new microscope will be done with cell samples of Idiopathic Lung Fibrosis (ILF), a chronic age-related lung disease, which affects humans and causes 0,5 million deaths every year.