16. Nov. 2022
Find out the elemental composition of meteorites, look non-invasively into the "guts" of industrial products or examine biological samples – for example, human bones from archaeological finds. All this and much more is done by researchers in one of CEITEC BUT's research groups - Advanced Instrumentation and Methods for Materials Characterization. The team, led by Professor Jozef Kaiser, has become a globally recognised group of experts in imaging methods. Using an 18tonne computed tomography scanner, they scan samples of various sizes in 3D and are involved in industrial developments. They have also managed to establish two growing spin-off companies. Professor Jozef Kaiser answers questions about CT expertise. Dr. Markéta Tesařová shares her biological achievements.
This year you opened a new industrial CT laboratory at CEITEC, what preceded it?
JK: To answer the question, I have to go back in history a little bit more. Our research group went in two directions. Before CEITEC was founded, we were working on laser-induced microplasma spectrometry, or a method for determining the elemental composition of materials. Then we got into non-destructive imaging methods, or computed tomography (CT), and we started a collaboration with Synchrotron Elettra in Trieste, Italy, which has been a project partner of CEITEC since the beginning. Later, when CEITEC was being established, we decided to build a complementary laboratory within it with an industrial overlap. We purposely selected instruments that we could deploy for industrial collaboration, even though CEITEC was still in its infancy as a basic research project at the time. We sensed its growth potential, and so we acquired the instrument that was placed at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of the BUT, because the research centre buildings that we are in now were not there then. At the beginning of this year, due to the renovation of the faculty, we had to move the 18tonne instrument to CEITEC after eight years, and in May we inaugurated the CT laboratory.
That must have been a difficult move.
JK: It was, even then it was a challenge to get such a heavy machine into the faculty. We had to reinforce the floor and move the instrument by crane. Installing the CT scanner was the first big investment of the fledgling CEITEC. When we moved it this year, we first had to dismantle half the building, the shell, and use the crane again to move it. But this way we have everything under one roof and don't have to move. We currently have three different sized CT machines here, which cover a wide range of samples, both scientific and industrial. The 18-tonne one, costing 18 million crowns, is the largest. Today, after our modifications, it would cost almost twice as much.
Did you have the funds for such a large investment, or did you have to borrow?
JK: Thanks to the fact that we have industrial cooperation, we did. I can't remember now how much it cost us, even in orders of magnitude, but it certainly wasn't cheap.
What do you research in the CT lab?
JK: We have basic and applied research in collaboration with industry. Within basic research, we do, among other things, what we call reverse engineering, where we use professional programs to display and analyse data that are primarily designed for mechanical engineering in biology. And we are very successful. Markéta Tesařová, the principal investigator of the project, has more to say about this.
MT: The biology projects started between 2014 and 2015, when we were approached by a group of biologists from Sweden who wanted to do 3D imaging of biological samples. But until then, the lab was only involved in industry and biological objects were not so easy to image. Data processing was also complicated. I, as an undergraduate student, wanted to see if I could do it. I was manually creating 3D models, which involved tracing the structures of interest on about 2,000 slides. So, it was a bit of student grunt work, but it paid off. For biologists, it was something they hadn't seen before.
Can you give an example?
MT: For example, we had mouse embryos. Traditionally, they are imaged using other methods – focal microscopy, optical tomography – but their limitation is that the sample size has to be small. Whereas we can image samples that are a metre in size. In the mouse embryo, we were able to capture and, more importantly, image growth, covering all stages of development. From the embryo, we moved on to cartilage, organs, then the interest moved on to other organisms. Now, for example, we've been looking at the regenerative abilities of salamanders. We're providing collaborating biologists with data they couldn't get anywhere else. Without exaggeration, we've begun to build a new direction in biology.
What are they using the data for? Why is it important to them?
MT: The biologists we work with are mostly doing basic research. For example, they are interested in why various genetic developmental diseases arise. Of course, the experiments are not done on humans; the model organism is mice. For example, they wanted to know how a mouse's cartilaginous skull grows. Thanks to our 3D imaging method and the data they collected, they found that during the developmental stages the shape of the skull does not change, only the size changes. And with this finding, they can explain the biological process. Simply put, the data allows them to understand and describe biological mechanisms that were previously unexplained.
That sounds like a major discovery.
MT: We didn't know how fundamental this was before we wrote up our findings on mouse embryos and sent them out for publication. The paper always goes through a peer review process where the reviewers give feedback. But they threw the paper out, saying they didn't believe we could image cartilage with CT. That's when we realized that this was a really revolutionary discovery in biology. That happened in 2017, and in that time, we've built quite a name for ourselves, our imaging method has become prestigious, and we've been approached by other research groups to collaborate.
JK: I'm really excited about the biology. We had two papers in Nature Communications within a year. So, the effort we've put in is coming back in the form of high-impact articles. But the journey has not been easy. The perspective of biologists and engineers is very different, and it took time to get comfortable.
What other research do you plan to do in relation to biology?
MT: I have now applied for a prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) grant in collaboration with an institution in Slovenia. We want to take inspiration from biology and apply biological structures to the construction industry. For example, we want to find out what effect facades built on this principle could have on the climate effect.
Let us now return to the cooperation with industry. What does it involve?
JK: We've been building that from the beginning and we're looking for CT expertise, not just CT analysis. We are an application lab for Rigaku (Japan) and Thermo Fisher Scientific (USA) and a testing lab for Waygate Technologies (formerly GE Inspection Technologies, Germany). With Thermo Fisher, we are now working on correlative microscopy, among other things, and I'm happy about that too, because we're applying for our second grant with them. So, we are making our mark on the global scene and on industrial cooperation. In addition to that, we are working on industrial projects, for example, from fibre-reinforced polymers to large plastic parts, where we are looking at possible defects. Receiving these applied research assignments helps us to keep our facilities at the cutting edge.
Is it right to say that you work with the best instruments in the country?
JK: In certain aspects, definitely. As part of our work with Rigaku, we get to test the very latest software, but also the hardware capabilities that the instrument provides. We have a dual-energy power supply from Rigaku, which was the first in Europe to be used here. From GE, we tested their flat panel detectors. Through these collaborations, we can then get our hands on the latest software modules and test them. We also create our own modules, for example we invent software improvements for Rigaku.
Could you elaborate more on how CT lab specifically helps the industry?
JK: Unfortunately, we have a non-disclosure agreement. So, I can't give a specific example.
MT: I'll describe it in general terms, as I explain it to my grandmother (laughs). A company is making an expensive part for a car, for example, and suddenly at the inspection station they find that they have a problem, and of course they don't want to cut the expensive part. So, they send it to us, we scan it and make a 3D model. We can non-invasively and non-destructively look inside and measure, for example, the dimensions, whether there is a well-drilled hole, whether there is a crack and generally some defect. Within two hours, we can tell the company the reason for the problem. So, we save them money and time.
JK: As well as finding defects, we also work with companies to develop new products.
What are your visions for the CT lab? What would you like to do more of?
JK: We have a big project coming up right now because our colleagues at Waygate have developed a huge CT scanner in Cincinnati that uses a linear accelerator (used in medicine to treat cancer) as a source. There are several major aircraft engine and component companies in Cincinnati that use additive technologies (3D printing) to a greater extent. The result is large metal parts that they control. And the only control available is a CT scanner with a high energy source that can screen large, heavy parts. We'd like to get this system into the Czech Republic or Europe, the Czech Republic is probably too small for it now. Besides, we're continuing what we've been doing. We are also trying to combine computed tomography with laser spectroscopy at some level to add value and to be able to calibrate samples and tell the elemental composition.
Who needs to know the elemental composition?
JK: Geologists, for example. We can use the instrument to quantify quite quickly what percentage of uranium or gold is there. We've even looked at space samples here, we've had some meteorites. In particular, the one that fell in 2015 near Žďár nad Sázavou. Speaking of space, I must mention that we are now increasingly opening up to space projects.
How does collaboration on projects come about? Do you read something in the newspaper and say to yourself, our methods could be applied to this, I'll try to contact them, or on the contrary, do you already have such a reputation that companies seek you out?
JK: It's more like they're contacting us now. We have several projects at ESA and NASA, so we have some visibility at some level. But Elon Musk hasn't called us yet (laughs).
Your group's research has also spawned two spin-off companies – CactuX and Lightigo. Can you say more about them?
JK: Lightigo is involved in LIBS technology, so it produces and sells laser spectroscopy devices around the world, primarily to research institutions. And CactuX was built on technology that we originally wanted from Waygat. It was a fairly simple, wirelessly controlled xy shift into our setups. We ended up doing it ourselves and selling the technology through Waygate, among others. In addition to that, CactuX now does calibration phantoms and other things.
Why start a spin-off company?
JK: I think one of the advantages of spin-off companies is that we can retain highly skilled people who don't want an academic career so much. On the contrary, they want to realise themselves in business. Most of the leadership positions in these start-ups are filled by people who have come out of our research group.
How challenging is it to separate commercial activity from academia?
JK: It's not an easy process. In the academy, we do research, development, making new things, but we don't take it into products anymore. We try to stick to terms like idea, implementation, prototype. And once it goes beyond prototype, it has to be done by a spin-off company. As a university, we don't want to and can't sell products. The spin-off company will do the global market research, turn the prototype into a product, test it and do the certification.
How do you, as the founders, and CEITEC figure in the spin-off company?
JK: At the beginning, we are there in the role of mentor and initial investor. Then we move out of it and we don't interfere in the operations anymore. For example, we deal with strategic things and visions of where to move. CEITEC has licensed several products, so of course it profits from these companies. In addition, it continues to work with them, so it is profitable from that point of view as well.