NanoUltrasonics Project to See Inside Cells

Revolutionary ultrasonic nanotechnology that could allow scientists to see inside a patient’s individual cells to help diagnose serious illnesses is being developed by researchers at The University of Nottingham.

The new technique would utilise ultrasound technology — more commonly used to look at whole bodies such as fetal scanners — to look inside cells. The components of the new technology would be many thousand times smaller than current systems.

The work by the Ultrasonics Group in the Division of Electrical Systems and Optics has recently been awarded a £850,000 five-year Platform Grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Ultrasound refers to sound waves that are at a frequency too high to be detected by the human ear, typically 20 kHz and above. Medical ultrasound uses an electrical transducer the size of a matchbox to produce sound waves at much higher frequencies, typically around 100-1000 times higher to probe bodies.

To produce nano-ultrasonics you have to produce a nano-transducers, which essentially means taking a device that is currently the size of a matchbox and scaling it down to the nanoscale. They plan to create a device that works optically — using pulses of laser light to produce ultrasound rather than an electrical current. This will allow them to talk to these tiny devices. The new technology may also allow scientists to see objects even smaller than optical microscopes and be so sensitive they may be able to measure single molecules.

500 of the nanotransducers will fit across the width of one human hair and will use sound in the GHz (gigahertz) range.

The group is also looking at developing new inspection techniques for inspecting engineering metamaterials — advanced composites that are currently impossible to inspect with ultrasound. These materials offer huge performance advantages allowing radical new engineering but can’t be widely used because of the difficulty of inspection.

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