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  • BC Receives Funding for Novel Microscope
Feb 2011
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass., Feb. 9, 2011 — Boston College has been awarded a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to help develop a new microscope that uses a light-guiding "metamedium" to create images that reveal micro- and macroscopic matter with significantly improved clarity.

The nanoscale coaxial optical microscope, or NCOM, would join a new class of microscopes known as "superlenses," which function far differently than traditional optical microscopes. These new devices use novel technologies to manipulate light, reconstruct it on computers or assemble bits of images to create one in its entirety.

The NCOM, under development in a $1.8 million project, relies on a bundle of hundreds of nanometer-scale tubes similar in design to the coaxial cable that supplies TV, internet and phone signals. The nanocoax design will allow the microscope to focus beams of light on subwavelength-sized matter, such as cells or proteins, and then return that light to a camera that presents the image.

A $1 million grant will support Boston College researchers – including (clockwise from left) Joshua Rosenberg, Prof. Krzysztof Kempa, Greg McMahon and Michael J. Naughton – as it develops a nanoscale coaxial optical microscope. (Image: Boston College)

"We're excited by the opportunities this grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation provides and grateful for their support," said principal investigator Michael J. Naughton, Ferris Professor of Physics. "We believe our novel concepts and ideas on microscopy can lead to the development of the nanoscale coaxial optical microscope, which will have a far-reaching impact on scientific investigation."

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The foundation's grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering, and undergraduate education. It also maintains a Southern California Grant Program that that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth.

In addition to Naughton, the research team includes Professor of Physics Krzysztof Kempa; Joshua Rosenberg, manager of the college's microscopy imaging facility; and Greg McMahon, a researcher and nanolithography specialist in the college’s Clean Room Nanofabrication Facility.

Tiny pieces of matter present a significant challenge to microscopists because they can be smaller than the wavelengths of the electromagnetic waves that strike them. An optical barrier known since the 1800s as the diffraction limit restricts the resolution necessary to distinguish among the features of matter. Researchers traditionally have used electron microscopes to "see" matter using electron waves, which can be much shorter than light waves, or optical devices after a sample has been colored with fluorescent dyes. Rosenberg said the advantage of the NCOM will be the ability to examine matter using visible light without the need to manipulate or stain the sample.

Where traditional microscopes offer a resolution that allows scientists to distinguish between two features as long as they are separated by 200 nm or more, the NCOM is projected to provide resolution of 20 nm. Without the need to manipulate or treat the sample, tissue could be examined in its living state, instead of in the vacuum of an electron microscope.

"With superresolution microscopy, we propose we can achieve 20 nm resolution, which is a 10-fold improvement," Rosenberg said. "That means scientists will be able to see with much finer detail what is going on inside of a cell and how the cell works."

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