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Researchers develop the world’s smallest ultrasound detector

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Researchers have developed the world's smallest ultrasound detector

Silicon chip (approximately 3 mm x 6 mm) with multiple detectors. The beautiful black engravings on the surface of the chip are the photon circuits that connect the detectors (they do not look to the naked eye). In the background, a larger-scale photonic circuit in a silicon wafer. Credit: Helmholtz Zentrum Muenchen / Roman Shnaiderman

Researchers at the Helmholtz Zentrum Munich and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed the world’s smallest ultrasound detector. It is based on miniaturized photonic circuits on top of a silicon chip. With a size 100 times smaller than an average human hair, the new detector can visualize features that are much smaller than was previously possible, leading to what is known as super-resolution images.


Since the development of medical ultrasound imaging in the 1950s, the main technology of ultrasound wave detection has focused mainly on the use of piezoelectric detectors, which convert pressure from ultrasound waves into electrical voltage. The image resolution achieved by ultrasound depends on the size of the piezoelectric detector used. Reducing this size leads to higher resolution and can provide one- or two-dimensional dense, densely packed ultrasound arrays with improved ability to discriminate features in tissue or image material. However, further reducing the size of piezoelectric detectors impairs their sensitivity dramatically, making them unusable for practical application.

Using computer chip technology to create an optical ultrasound detector

Silicon photonics technology is widely used to minimize optical components and to pack them tightly into the small surface of a silicon chip. While silicon exhibits no piezoelectricity, its ability to limit light to dimensions smaller than the optical wavelength has already been widely exploited for the development of miniaturized photonic circuits.

Researchers at Helmholtz Zentrum Munchen and TUM capitalized on the advantages of those miniaturized photon circuits and built the world’s smallest ultrasound detector: the silicon wave detector-etalon detector, or SWED. Instead of recording voltage from piezoelectric crystals, SWED monitors changes in light intensity that propagate through miniaturized photonic circuits.

“This is the first time a detector smaller than the size of a blood cell has been used to detect ultrasound using silicon photonics technology,” says Rami Shnaiderman, SWED developer. “If a piezoelectric detector were miniaturized on the SWED scale, it would be 100 million times less sensitive.”

Super resolution images

“The extent to which we were able to minimize the new detector while maintaining high sensitivity due to the use of silicon photonics was astonishing,” says Prof. Vasilis Ntziachristos, research team leader. The SWED size is about half a micron (= 0.0005 millimeters). This size corresponds to an area that is at least 10,000 times smaller than the smaller piezoelectric detectors employed in clinical imaging applications. SWED is also up to 200 times smaller than the ultrasound wavelength, which means it can be used to visualize features that are smaller than a micrometer, leading to what is called super-resolution images.

Cheap and powerful

While the technology benefits from the durability and easy productivity of the silicon platform, a large number of detectors can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost of piezoelectric detectors, making production possible. This is important for the development of a number of different detection applications based on ultrasound waves. “We will continue to optimize every parameter of this technological sensitivity, integrating SWED into large ranges and implementing it into handheld devices and endoscopes,” adds Schnaiderman.

Future development and applications

“The detector was originally created to boost optoacoustic imaging performance, which is a major focus of our research at Helmholtz Zentrum Mnchen and TUM. However, we now envision applications in a wider field of sensing and imaging,” says Ntziachristos.

While researchers primarily target applications in clinical diagnostics and basic biomedical research, industrial applications can also benefit from new technology. Increased image resolution can lead to the study of ultra-fine detail in tissues and materials. A first line of inquiry involves optoacoustic (photoacoustic) super-resolution images of cells and micro-vasculature in tissues, but SWED can also be used to study the basic properties of ultrasonic waves and their interactions with matter on a scale that was not possible before.

The study is published in Nature.


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More information:
Shnaiderman, R., Wissmeyer, G., Lgen, O. et al. A silicon sub-micrometer resonator in the insulator for ultrasound detection. Nature, DOI: 10.1038 / s41586-020-2685-y , www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2685-y

Provided by Helmholtz Zentrum Mnchen

citation: Researchers develop the world’s smallest ultrasound detector (2020, September 17) taken from September 17, 2020 by https://phys.org/news/2020-09-world-smallest-ultrating-detector.html

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