Beckman Institute researchers receive $1.99 million National Science Foundation MRI award to acquire nano-CT instrument

In order to address the pressing imaging needs of University of Illinois researchers, Paul Braun, group leader for the 3-D Micro- and Nanosystems group at the Beckman Institute and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Ben Grosser, Director of the Imaging Technology Group at the Beckman Institute, led an impressive effort to secure funding for prestigious, highly competitive National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation (NSF MRI) funding. The funding will be used to acquire a revolutionary nanotomography (nano-CT) instrument that performs complex 3-D imaging at a scale that has been previously unattainable.

The investigators are receiving $1,998,500, the full amount requested in the proposal. This is a remarkable accomplishment considering that historically there have only been a limited number of NSF MRI awards of this magnitude. In fact, it is in the top 1% of all NSF MRI awards ever given. The nano-CT award is also the largest NSF MRI award ever granted to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The state-of-the-art nano-CT will be housed at the Beckman Institute on the Illinois campus and it will be the first of its kind at a university in the United States. While the instrument itself may not be common, Braun and Grosser discovered the need for its capabilities were urgently in demand by at least 40 research groups, representing more than 20 different departments at Illinois. From Animal Science to Mechanical Engineering, researchers plan to advance their work using the nano-CTs high-resolution x-ray nanotomography and its ability to support nondestructive internal 3-D imaging of samples as thick as 0.1 millimeter while resolving features as small as 30 nanometers in width.

"This award is incredibly important for the advancement of research being done at the nano-scale," Grosser said. "For progress to continue in fields like materials science and biological engineering it is vital to be able to study the three-dimensional structure of materials at a scale that is larger than a single atom, but smaller than a biological cell. The nano-CT gives researchers that capability at the highest resolution possible."

The capabilities of the nano-CT are expected to have a major impact in the following areas:

  • health care research such as bone re-growth, and cancer imaging;
  • environmental research including fuel cell improvements that provide cleaner and better alternatives for the environment;
  • bioimaging;
  • and in the facilitation of an entirely new class of nanodevices that could potentially revolutionize our daily lives.

The nano-CT will complement the previously NSF-funded micro-CT that is also located in the Beckman Institute.

"The award for the nano-CT is the largest that we [Beckman Institute Imaging Technology Group] have ever received. It will be the most expensive instrument within our facilities, and its ability to image opaque 3-D objects with as much as 30 nanometers of resolution will make it invaluable to our users," Grosser said. "It will provide capabilities that no other university can do or come close to doing at this time."

The nano-CT will also be incorporated into two popular and well-established educational outreach programs, Bugscope and the Virtual Microscope. These projects, which are hosted and supported by the Beckman Institutes Imaging Technology Group, have provided K-12 school children with the opportunity to remotely explore insects from their region. The nano-CT will enhance their experience by giving them the opportunity to explore the internal features of their bugs at the nanoscale.

The principal investigator on the project is Paul Braun, group leader for the 3-D Micro- and Nanosystems group at the Beckman Institute and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Co-investigators include Walter Hurley, Department of Animal Sciences; Iwona Jasiuk, Beckman 3-D Micro- and Nanosystems group and Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering; John Rogers, Beckman Institute 3-D Micro- and Nanosystems group and Department of Materials Science and Engineering; and Amy Wagoner Johnson, Beckman Institute Autonomous Materials Systems group and Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering.

The nano-CT is expected to be installed and operational at the Beckman Institute in the Spring of 2008. It will be available 24 hours-a-day to University of Illinois faculty, staff and students, as well as their campus and industry collaborators. Expert, trained staff members will train users to independently operate the device. Imaging Technology Group staff will also be on-hand to assist with sample preparation, acquisition, processing, analysis and storage of the nano-CT data.