Particle physicist turns his hand t… – Information Centre – Research & Innovation

Technological know-how made in an EU-funded venture for large-vitality physics experiments also has the opportunity

Technological know-how made in an EU-funded venture for large-vitality physics experiments also has the opportunity to significantly increase the sensitivity of PET scanners for healthcare imaging.


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When the Higgs boson was identified in 2012, Paul Lecoq was a single of the physicists who designed it attainable. Now, as principal investigator in the EU-funded TICAL venture, he has been implementing his skills in constructing particle detectors to complications about healthcare imaging.

‘From the quite starting, I experienced the intuition that the technology I was proposing to enhance the efficiency of our particle physics detectors would have a strong impression in healthcare physics,’ he states.

Right until just lately, Lecoq labored at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, as specialized coordinator for a single of the detectors for the Big Hadron Collider. Identified as a ‘calorimeter’, the detector takes advantage of dense crystalline blocks, known as scintillators, to capture particles as they pass by means of. The vitality of the particle appears as flash of mild which is picked up by sensitive photodetectors.

In exercise, a large-vitality particle will generate a shower of other particles in the scintillator but the reaction of the scintillator is just as well sluggish to record the complexity of the shower.

Nanocrystals

With funding for the TICAL venture from the European Exploration Council, Lecoq set out to devise a new type of scintillator that could extra specifically record the placement and timing of situations in just the shower. ‘What I want is a reconstruction of the spatial enhancement of the shower and also the time – I want to know the dynamics of it.’

His answer was to use nanocrystals – very small crystals of scintillator material that are smaller plenty of for quantum results to dominate and for a captured particle to emit a a great deal sharper flash of mild. By sandwiching skinny layers of nanocrystals among sheets of common scintillator, Lecoq’s ‘meta-scintillator’ allows the particle shower to be tracked extra accurately.

Meta-scintillators could significantly enhance the particle detectors at CERN – but that is not the full tale.

For lots of many years, Lecoq focused on PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanners, the imaging machines made use of to probe the interior of the human system, specially for cancer prognosis. They count on detecting gamma rays working with a great deal the very same rules as CERN’s particle detectors.

‘I made use of to say that the one hundred-tonne calorimeter, the design of which I was responsible for at the Big Hadron Collider, is practically nothing but a gigantic PET scanner,’ he jokes.

10 picosecond problem

At existing, the greatest PET scanners can time the arrival of a gamma ray to greater than five hundred picoseconds. With the TICAL meta-scintillators in the long run able of a precision of 10 picoseconds – fifty situations greater – Lecoq envisages potential PET scanners able to generate a great deal sharper photographs. They would also need a great deal considerably less radioactive material and most likely have wider programs in medicine.

Lecoq is at present trying to get sponsors for a ‘Ten picosecond challenge’ to design and style and develop gamma-ray detectors for PET programs able of this higher time resolution.

TICAL completed at the end of 2018 but Lecoq, retired from CERN, is now co-CEO of Multiwave Metacrystal, a enterprise created to commercialise the get the job done of the venture. It is setting up a laboratory in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Valencia to build meta-scintillators. Originally, they would be for PET scanners despite the fact that they also have opportunity for other industrial and stability programs.

Lecoq sees the venture as a basic illustration of how European funding can allow ‘a totally ridiculous idea’ to experienced to the point exactly where it can be commercialised for the fantastic of culture. ‘For me, the ERC grant was excellent. The European Commission has really played the part it really should play.’