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Pushing the limits of lensless imaging


At the Frontiers in Optics conference researchers will describe a custom-built ultrafast laser that could help image everything from semiconductor chips to cells in real time

Using ultrafast beams of extreme ultraviolet light streaming at a 100,000 times a second, researchers from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany, have pushed the boundaries of a well-established imaging technique. Not only did they make the highest resolution images ever achieved with this method at a given wavelength, they also created images fast enough to be used in real time. Their new approach could be used to study everything from semiconductor chips to cancer cells.

In coherent diffraction imaging, extreme ultraviolet light scatters off the target and produces a diffraction pattern. A computer analyzes the pattern to reconstruct an image of the target material.

Credit: Dr. Michael Zürch, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany

The team will present their work at the Frontiers in Optics, The Optical Society's annual meeting and conference in San Jose, California, USA, on 22 October 2015.

The researchers' wanted to improve on a lensless imaging technique called coherent diffraction imaging, which has been around since the 1980s. To take a picture with this method, scientists fire an X-ray or extreme ultraviolet laser at a target. The light scatters off, and some of those photons interfere with one another and find their way onto a detector, creating a diffraction pattern. By analyzing that pattern, a computer then reconstructs the path those photons must have taken, which generates an image of the target material -- all without the lens that's required in conventional microscopy.

"The computer does the imaging part -- forget about the lens," explained Michael Zürch, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany and lead researcher. "The computer emulates the lens."

Without a lens, the quality of the images primarily depends on the radiation source. Traditionally, researchers use big, powerful X-ray beams like the one at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, USA. Over the last ten years, researchers have developed smaller, cheaper machines that pump out coherent, laser-like beams in the laboratory setting. While those machines are convenient from the cost perspective, they have drawbacks when reporting results.

The table-top machines are unable to produce as many photons as the big expensive ones which limits their resolution. To achieve higher resolutions, the detector must be placed close to the target material -- similar to placing a specimen close to a microscope to boost the magnification. Given the geometry of such short distances, hardly any photons will bounce off the target at large enough angles to reach the detector. Without enough photons, the image quality is reduced.

Zürch and a team of researchers from Jena University used a special, custom-built ultrafast laser that fires extreme ultraviolet photons a hundred times faster than conventional table-top machines. With more photons, at a wavelength of 33 nanometers, the researchers were able to make an image with a resolution of 26 nanometers -- almost the theoretical limit. "Nobody has achieved such a high resolution with respect to the wavelength in the extreme ultraviolet before," Zürch said.

The ultrafast laser also overcame another drawback of conventional table-top light sources: long exposure times. If researchers have to wait for images, they can't get real-time feedback on the systems they study. Thanks to the new high-speed light source, Zürch and his colleagues have reduced the exposure time to only about a second -- fast enough for real-time imaging. When taking snapshots every second, the researchers reached a resolution below 80 nanometers.

The prospect of high-resolution and real-time imaging using such a relatively small setup could lead to all kinds of applications, Zürch said. Engineers can use this to hunt for tiny defects in semiconductor chips. Biologists can zoom in on the organelles that make up a cell. Eventually, he said, the researchers might be able to cut down on the exposure times even more and reach even higher resolution levels.


About the Presentation

The presentation, "Approaching the Abbe Limit in the Extreme Ultraviolet: Ultrafast Imaging Using a Compact High Average Power High Harmonic," by Michael Zürch, will take place from 13:00 - 14:45, Thursday, 22 October 2015, in The Fairmont Hotel, San Jose, California, USA.

Media Registration: A media room for credentialed press and analysts will be located on-site in The Fairmont Hotel, 18-22 October 2015. Media interested in attending the event should register on the FiO website media center: Media Center.

About FiO/LS

Frontiers in Optics (FiO) 2015 is The Optical Society's (OSA) 99th Annual Meeting and is being held together with Laser Science, the 31th annual meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) Division of Laser Science (DLS). The two meetings unite the OSA and APS communities for five days of quality, cutting-edge presentations, in-demand invited speakers and a variety of special events spanning a broad range of topics in optics and photonics--the science of light--across the disciplines of physics, biology and chemistry. The exhibit floor will feature leading optics companies, technology products and programs. More information at:

About The Optical Society

Founded in 1916, The Optical Society (OSA) is the leading professional organization for scientists, engineers, students and entrepreneurs who fuel discoveries, shape real-life applications and accelerate achievements in the science of light. Through world-renowned publications, meetings and membership initiatives, OSA provides quality research, inspired interactions and dedicated resources for its extensive global network of optics and photonics experts. OSA is a founding partner of the National Photonics Initiative and the 2015 International Year of Light. For more information, visit:

Media Contact

Rebecca Andersen


Rebecca Andersen | EurekAlert!

Further reports about: OSA Optical extreme ultraviolet limits nanometers photons ultrafast laser wavelength

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