NPL – supporting the next generation of medical imaging

On February 18 2020, The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is hosting MMN: Innovation in medtech to showcase organisations and services in the region that can support medtech innovators.

Here is an example of the support they’ve provided to a medtech SME in the past, and the type of benefit that they could offer to your medtech development process.

The Challenge

3D imaging for disease or trauma often relies on expensive CT scans, which deliver large radiation doses. Cheaper X-ray techniques only produce 2D scans. Adaptix has developed a solution to the combined shortcomings of existing technologies: a novel X-ray source that allows low-cost, truly portable 3D scans.

The innovation is a flat panel X-ray source. It takes multiple low dose X-rays and uses algorithms to turn data from the many ray paths into a 3D image, a technique known as ‘Digital Tomosynthesis’ (DT). This provides better clinical insight than 2D imaging, but using a fraction of the radiation of CT scans.

A novel aspect of the panel is the grid of cold cathode field emitters – an array of tips which each generate a controlled X-ray. Many emitters can be packed onto a single panel allowing multiple simultaneous X-rays.

This is the first time a two-dimensional array of cold cathodes has been used for medical X-rays; other devices use bulky X-ray tubes. Adaptix compares this advance to moving from cathode ray tube TVs to flat screens.

The X-ray emissions need to be highly uniform in order to build a reliable 3D image. The emitters also need to meet durability requirements mandated for clinical use. Investigation revealed inconsistencies in the emitter tips, compromising both of these requirements.

The Solution

Adaptix worked with NPL, initially through the Analysis for Innovators Programme, to understand how it could improve the materials of its cold cathode field emitters, and thereby improve performance.

Adaptix developed new materials and coatings which it hoped would improve the product and sent these to NPL to test and validate.

NPL applied a wide range of state-of-the-art analysis tools to examine the structural and chemical properties of the material samples, including high resolution scanning electron microscopy (SEM) for structural analysis, and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) and secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) for chemical analysis.

A member of NPL staff looking at a minature device through a high-resolution microscope.

Measurements were taken of the geometry of tips, quality of coatings, contaminants and oxidation state.

Research revealed differences between tip geometries and coating quality which potentially affected X-ray emission uniformity, identified surface chemistry contamination caused by manufacturing processes, and highlighted the impact of high current on material degradation.

Through this research, Adaptix was able to improve uniformity by identifying optimal materials and coatings. It also helped them remove sources of contamination which they were not aware of – an issue that may have become a serious problem down the line.

Additionally, measurements of how materials responded to different vacuum conditions allowed Adaptix to implement control mechanism to limit failure, such as identifying the optimum vacuum levels. All of which improves the performance of the product.

The Impact

The work with NPL helped Adaptix understand their device and its failure mechanisms better, helping them make informed choices about design, material selection, surface chemistry and operating conditions.

It also helped them identify approaches that wouldn’t work and abandon them early, as well as identifying errors and contamination sources, freeing up time to focus on work that would deliver results.

This improved the efficiency of their R&D and will reduce their time to market.

NPL allows UK SMEs access to the best that the UK’s world-leading science base has to offer. Working with NPL allows Adaptix to ‘stand on the shoulders’of a giant of science to characterise materials at the smallest of scales.

We are now extending that successful relationship through NPL Scotland supporting us as we mobilise manufacturing, showing how NPL’s leading-edge science flows through into economic activity and the creation of high-value jobs.

Mark Evans, CEO – Adaptix

To learn more about organisations and services in the Leeds and Sheffield City Regions that can support your medtech development, join us at the upcoming MMN medtech innovation networking event on February 18 2020.