The Journal of Industry and Technology

Industrial Analytical Instrumentation

Euro Technology

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Promising technologies moving from lab to reality

Instrumentation developments by researchers at the University of Bristol have been identified by the Royal Academy of Engineering as having such fantastic commercial potential that the Academy will be paying and supporting them to become entrepreneurs instead of continuing academic research.
Their innovations are a new high-speed atomic force microscope that is the fastest in the world and unique in that it can map not only the height of the sample surface, but also its stiffness and conductance with nanometre resolution, and high-resolution timing instrumentation using digital timing techniques (rather than the traditional analogue) to dramatically lower costs for scientists without sacrificing quality of results.

Dr Loren Pico and Dr Richard Nock have been awarded funding and money-can't-buy mentoring as part of the Academy's Enterprise Fellowships scheme to help turn their technologies into viable businesses.

Picture 1: The entire instrument's functionality is implemented on a low cost Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), which is located under the heatsink. IP is held within the firmware and techniques employed rather than specialised timing circuitry or Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs).
Picture 2: The instrument is shown in a typical quantum information experiment environment. The re-programmability of the Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) allows for the device to be programmed at will to perform a variety of timing tasks, including Time to Digital Conversion (TDC), Time Correlated Single Photon Counting (TCSPC) and coincidence counting.

Richard Nock - Low cost cutting-edge research tools for scientists in cancer research and quantum computers
High-resolution timing instruments are used by scientists in many domains, from bio-medical imaging in cancer research to quantum information processing research with the aim of speeding up computers in the future. Many advanced and extremely useful research tools, however, are not widely used by scientists because of the cost of the precision timing technology in them. Richard has developed a device using digital timing techniques, rather than the traditional analogue, which dramatically lowers the cost without sacrificing quality of results and could therefore make cutting-edge research tools more accessible to scientists solving problems all over the world.

Picture 3: A close up image of Loren's experimental setup.

Picture 4: A cropped section of a 100 megapixel high speed AFM image of DNA, showing the resolution Loren's team can achieve at speeds thousands of times faster than existing techniques.

Dr Loren Picco - The world's fastest atomic force microscope
Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) is one of the foremost tools that scientists use to examine matter at the nanoscale, such as biological cells and bacteria. AFM technology gathers information by 'feeling' the surface with a mechanical probe, but the process can be time-consuming and requires highly-skilled operators.

Loren has developed a new high-speed atomic force microscope that is the fastest in the world and unique in that it can map not only the height of the sample surface, but also its stiffness and conductance with nanometre resolution. It also uses a touch screen interface that means scientists can use 'multi-touch' gestures (like those used on the iPhone to zoom, for example) to interact with samples in real time, unlike traditional methods. This significantly improves its usability, making analysis quicker, opening up new ways of manipulating samples, and enabling even non-skilled operators to control the instrument effectively.

Both will receive up to £85,000 of funding each to spend the next 12 months exclusively developing a spin-out business based on his technological innovations. As part of the Academy's new Enterprise Hub, they will also receive one-to-one mentoring from some of the UK's top technology entrepreneurs. 

Arnoud Jullens, Head of Enterprise at the Royal Academy of Engineering, commented, "UK universities produce some of the greatest innovations in the world, but getting them out of the lab and into the marketplace remains a huge challenge. Business-minded academics need investment and support from experienced industry practitioners to exploit their research, which could become the commercial success stories of tomorrow, and this is exactly what the Academy's Enterprise Hub provides."

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