Published: April 8, 2019 By

The imaging equipment A new and unique high-resolution X-ray microtomography imaging system at the college will enhance research, not only in engineering, but in the fields of archaeology, geology and medicine across campus and the Rocky Mountain region.

The ZEISS Xradia 520 Versa allows for impressive non-destructive X-Ray Microscopy (XRM) imaging of hard, soft and biological materials. It creates non-destructive cross-sections of scanned objects using X-rays that can be combined to generate a 3D virtual model at an unparalleled resolution of 700 nanometers. Scanned objects can also be studied over time as they react to controlled temperature, compression and tension, enabling previously unobservable deformation and failure. All of these data can be imported into simulations for further manipulation and study by researchers.

This is the first system of its kind for the university and it will be available for use by researchers on campus, in the CU system and at universities and facilities in the surrounding states. The $1 million-dollar system was paid for through a combination of funding from the National Science Foundation and matching money from the College of Engineering and Applied Science and the university. 

Assistant Professor Wil Srubar is the lead investigator on the award from the NSF with contributions from Associate Professor Virginia Ferguson, Assistant Professor Mija Hubler and Professors Robert McLeod and Stephanie Bryant.

Together, the group represents several departments in the college and their proposed areas of research reflect the diversity of research in the university. They plan to look at building materials, polymers and natural materials related to evolution, for example, answering a variety of questions and building expertise with the system along the way. 

Ferguson said that her group has already used it for studies of using 3D printed materials for cartilage and tissue regeneration to treat injuries of the pediatric growth plate.  Her group has also imaged biomaterials and cells living inside of bones using support from seed grants from the Multifunctional Materials and Precision Biomaterials Interdisciplinary Research Themes.

“With this tool we were able to perform visualizations for bio-projects without having to cut them open – or destroy them by slicing them and staining them to look at the cells for example,” she said. “We knew this was an exciting area of study but needed preliminary data for it to further the work. This system and the IRT funds are letting me do that.”

Srubar said that there are systems similar to this in the region, but they are older and can only handle small sample sizes. On in use at the Colorado School of Mines for example focus on rock physics and hard materials, not on soft or biological materials – a strength of the research community at CU Boulder.

“It also took a lot of time to image smaller things at this detail on top of the time needed to send samples and data between the outside lab and the researchers. With this, we can now do that same work in a matter of hours,” Srubar said.

The team is dedicated to making the new machine available to everyone and building up a regional expertise with it. To that end, they have created a new core instrument facility in engineering, the Materials Instrumentation and Multimodal Imaging Core (MIMIC). 

“The website will eventually showcase research examples and allow internal and external researchers to request an initial consultation,” Srubar said, noting that there will be different levels of use with different price points.

There will also be availability to train students interested in doing research on the equipment, offering them valuable experience. The Zeiss XRM machine will also be integrated into new and existing classes across the college and be used for demonstrations during recruitment of faculty and students.

The team also plans to host a biannual imaging symposium which will bring scientists active in imaging and materials characterization in the area together. Srubar said the goal of that meeting was to foster collaboration, and, ultimately, lead to new scientific ventures among participants.