Imagine imaging: from fusion to healthcare and more

When it comes to diagnosing cancer, you can never be too early. Early cancer diagnosis saves lives – few facts in medicine are as undisputable. So what if there could be a way to speed up the multiple steps of endoscopy, biopsy, lab tests and diagnosis before beginning treatment? What if endoscopy, diagnosis and tumour removal could be completed in a single procedure? Sounds like a pipedream? Not if you lend your ears to former fusion researcher Wouter Vijvers, founder and CEO of fusion spin-off Chromodynamics

Wouter, who worked at the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) and the Swiss Plasma Center (SPC), developed a novel imaging diagnostic known as MANTIS (Multispectral Advanced Narrowband Tokamak Imaging System) to study the plasma edge. Now, he wants to cross over this imaging diagnostic to provide a real-time single step solution for diagnosing and removing cancerous tumours. This is one of the main long-term goals of Chromodynamics, a start-up, which Wouter says, “has a vision of what matter’s."

Looking into the soul of the plasma edge

Wouter developed MANTIS during his postdoctoral stint at DIFFER with the support of a grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to carry out work at SPC’s TCV (Tokamak à Configuration Variable, literally "variable configuration tokamak") tokamak in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Earlier, when Wouter was working at TCV, he had used a refurbished imaging system called the MultiCam to obtain plasma images. He realised that the old imaging system, despite its limitations, was becoming a very useful control room tool. “A single image can already provide so much information, let alone what you can glean from multiple videos of the fusion plasma,” explains Wouter. While at TCV he crystallised the idea of taking imaging a step further into quantitative real-time imaging which “allows one to determine the shape of the plasma as well as its local plasma parameters. If you can do that you have so much information at your disposal,” he says.

But there were no multispectral cameras that met the rigorous requirements of fusion research available on the market.  This is when the idea to develop MANTIS was sowed.

MANTIS

The MANTIS system collects light through a single window in the tokamak and feeds it to ten cameras that each look at a very narrow wavelength band. When the information from these cameras is combined, researchers can pinpoint the exact position of the plasma edge and reconstruct temperatures along the exhaust stream. They can also analyse where impurities are present and how they influence the plasma conditions. All this happens in real time as the fusion experiment runs, enabling fusion researchers to not only collect and analyse data but to also adjust the experimental parameters as required. “I knew as soon as it worked that we had something unique,” says Wouter. “We were able to have real-time information on plasma parameters like temperature and density, and also the physical and chemical processes that take place in a dedicated area of the experiment.”

For fusion experiments…

At TCV, MANTIS is one of the systems that monitors the plasma discharges during fusion experiments. It looks at the lower part of the plasma discharge where magnetic fields guide the hot, charged gas to the reactor exhaust wall. And it are these multispectral and real-time capabilities that make MANTIS an interesting tool for fusion researchers everywhere.  But could the applications of this technology extend beyond fusion? Wouter was convinced that it could, so he founded the spin-off company Chromodynamics, whose tagline is “Real-time chemical imaging.”

While Chromodynamics aims to put its real-time imaging at the heart of future healthcare and other areas such as industrial quality and process control, it began its start-up journey in familiar territory: fusion. On February 19th, 2019, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), DIFFER, the European company Active Space Technologies, and Chromodynamics signed a cooperation agreement with the world's largest magnetic confinement fusion device project, ITER, to design a visible spectroscopy reference system.

 

At ITER, the system will be set up to monitor if plasma conditions remain conducive to absorbing the enormous power from the neutral beam injection systems. For Wouter, this cooperation agreement means not only contributing to the world’s biggest fusion experiment, but also establishing a stable basis from which to expand the application of multispectral imaging systems.

…and so much more

“Let’s take semiconductor devices for example,” says Wouter.  “These devices are made by depositing and etching multiple layers of thin semiconductor films on wafers. These thin films need to be very homogeneous and clean. With multispectral imaging techniques you can determine how homogeneous and pure each film is. If you can do this in real time for the whole wafer at once, you could tweak the parameters of the machine to produce the highest-quality layers possible during the manufacturing process itself, rather than having to wait for a whole batch to be produced, analysed and then trying it again,” he explains.This is just one example. Wouter envisions many areas where real-time multispectral imaging could find applications. But, as mentioned, the long-term goal is to change the approach to cancer diagnosis and tumour removal.

Imagine if a surgeon removing a malignant tumour could precisely see the tumour margins while operating on the patient. This is something that could potentially be done using real-time multispectral imaging.

“Healthy tissues and malignant tissues have different chemical profiles, and this difference is what multispectral imaging will be able to capture and show,” Wouter explains. “Combine that with real-time capabilities, and a surgeon could see the image of the malignant tissue while operating to ensure complete tumour removal.”

Like any novel medical technology, Wouter knows his idea has to be thoroughly vetted and it will be several years before it enters the market. But with two awards that recognise promising start-ups (Golden Lightbulb and the Beyond Tech Pitch Competition), a cooperation agreement with ITER and the European ATTRACT grant, it seems that Chromodynamics is on track to make innovative imaging systems as relevant to medical diagnosis, industrial quality and process control in the future as it is to fusion energy today.

Further reading