Super-Thin Smart Glass Bends without Breaking to Improve Microscopes

The new design could greatly improve life scientists working on new drugs and therapies.
Fabienne Lang

Researchers from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, and Delft University of Technology have developed a "plug-and-play" device that can easily be added to microscopes to improve the vision. 

It's called adaptive optics correction, which can be added to any commercial optical microscope

It's a significant step forward in biology, as the quality of images viewed through a microscope is much higher, something that's been extremely complex to implement.

Their study was published in the journal the Optical Society.


A step forward in biology

"Improving the technology available to life, scientists can further our understanding of biology, which will, in turn, lead to better drugs and therapies available to doctors," said research team leader, Paolo Pozzi from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.

The team developed the technology with multiple uses in mind. 

"This approach will allow advanced optical techniques such as multiphoton microscopy to image deeper under the surface of the brain in live organisms," said Stefano Bonora, group leader at the CNR-Institute for Photonics and Nanotechnology, who also worked on the project.

"We look forward to seeing how it might also be implemented in other systems, such as light-sheet microscopes, super-resolution systems, or even simple epifluorescence microscopes."

Adaptive optics are useful when correcting optical distortions typical when imaging through thick tissue. In order to not face this problem, a custom-built microscope is usually required that includes a deformable mirror. 

Super-Thin Smart Glass Bends without Breaking to Improve Microscopes
The team's adaptive lens correction in action. SourceT. Furieri, G. Calisei, A. Bassi, E. Daini, A. Vilella/ University of Modena and Reggio Emilia

However, it's not always easy to do so and takes time. "Including a deformable mirror in an existing microscope is nearly impossible, and no commercial adaptive microscope is available on the market yet," said Pozzi.

"This means that the only option for a life scientist to use adaptive optics is to build the entire microscope from scratch, an operation which is too difficult and time consuming for most life sciences laboratories."

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Hence the team's desire to find a solution to the issue. 

The team created a piece of glass so thin it's bendable. The lens is made up of a glass disc-shaped container filled with transparent liquid. Then, a set of 18 mechanical actuators on the glass rims and that are controlled by a computer act to shape and bend the glass as desired. 

The team then used an algorithm to control these actuators "Efficient optical correction was made possible by the DONE algorithm (database online nonlinear extremum-seeker), a very elegant solution based on machine learning-like principles, which we previously developed at TU Delft," said Pozzi.

What's great news is that this technology can be fitted onto any commercial microscope and then displays the image onto a screen.

Pozzi is enthusiastic that their device can be used in a widespread manner: Our new device could also be applied in other fields such as free space optics communications, where it could increase data connection rates and bring data connections to remote and isolated areas."