In situ microscopy has come a long way over the past ten years. What is the current state of this technology and how is the market using it to solve problems?
The last ten years have certainly been transformative for this field. Although in situ microscopy has been around for decades, it wasn’t until MEMS technologies were introduced that the field gained traction. When Protochips first commercialized MEMS technologies in the late 2000’s, it was all about safety and resolution. The next advancements for Protochips involved combining in situ microscopy with analytical techniques including EDS, EELS, and even ex-situ systems like mass spectrometry. Today, we are completely focused on our customer’s workflows from sample prep to data analysis and bringing all this information together for our customers to make high-value research and commercial decisions.
Some of the fastest growing verticals for Protochips are in the energy fields, including batteries and catalysis. In catalysis, for example, our customers are using our Atmosphere gas cell system to better understand how heterogeneous catalysts are activated, deactivated and even how they perform during operation. What made this technique take off was the integration with our mass spec, which adds chemical information as well as provides a baseline for chemists to compare experiments in the TEM lab with those done at a larger scale. At Protochips, we feel this is a critical linkage for all our customers.
Often high-resolution data collection can be unstable during in situ analysis due environmental changes especially at extreme magnifications. Why is this an issue?
This is an extremely important point. Over the past 15 years, electron microscopy has made high-resolution imaging much more routine, greatly reducing the learning curve through improved software and workflows. In situ microscopy brings nearly endless capabilities to look at samples in the “real world”, but instabilities caused by constantly changing temperatures, gases, etc. can make it difficult to maintain high-resolution images throughout the entire experiment. MEMS technologies helped to greatly reduce these issues, but changes in drift and focus are always something the microscopist needs to manage throughout an experiment.
Recently Protochips announced the release of a new product AXON. Why did Protochips develop this product? Was there a gap in the market?
I think everyone at Protochips would tell you AXON is the most exciting product we have ever worked on. First of all, we’ve always wanted to provide our users with an experience that feels *exactly* like a “regular” TEM session. In other words, any instabilities are taken away and the user is solely focused on the sample, almost forgetting that the environment is changing. Think about how image stabilization on a camera works. In addition, and this is a bigger goal, we wanted to bring all the data together in a way that makes it much easier to manage, find trends, and identify the most important parts of the experiment on which to spend time. This is a huge issue for microscopy in general.
Why is it important for scientists and engineers to have a software system for in situ microscopy that can link TEM, detectors and in situ systems together. How can this help their research and work?
Most of us have noticed companies like Tesla, Nvida, and DJI using machine vision technologies to create self-driving cars and drones that can do so many things on their own. Very little of this technology has made its way to electron microscopy, except in very specific applications, but the opportunity is certainly there. Machine vision technologies can have a significant impact on electron microscopy by automating background tasks that are distracting to the microscopist, reducing the learning curve for new users and most importantly, helping manage the immense amount of data generated in electron microscopy today. For example, by constantly analyzing the images coming from the microscope, AXON can quickly determine if anything has changed in position and make adjustments to the beam or stage. This is done many times a second, much faster than a person can, and the end result is an extremely stable image regardless of the instabilities caused by the experiment.
Machne Vision Technologies such as self-drivng cars can have a significant impact on electron micrsocopy. Image Credit:Shutterstock/metamorworks
How is AXON redefining the in-situ experience?
Our goal was two-fold: 1. To make the in situ experience accessible to anyone trained in microscopy and 2. To organize and present the data in a way that’s far easier to analyze during and after a session in the lab. Many people will tell you that it takes at least two people to run an in-situ experiment, one operating the microscope and the other operating the experiment. By taking over tasks like keeping the region of interest centered and in focus and saving all of the experimental data inside the images, the microscopist is free to focus their attention on what’s happening on the screen in front of them, making any adjustments they need to along the way. It’s truly transformative once you experience using it.
Which applications will benefit from AXON? How?
The features we started with are fundamental to any application within microscopy. Drift correction, focus, data synchronization, and data management are capabilities needed regardless of what the user is doing that day. Our major applications like catalysis will certainly benefit as users are regularly changing the environments throughout an experiment.
In addition, we made a pretty big business decision early on in the development of the product. We decided to make AXON compatible with *all* vendors’ products, not just Protochips. This means AXON can stabilize images acquired by other heating holders, cryo holders, and even the instabilities seen within non-in situ applications. We consider ourselves leaders in this industry and we also believe a rising tide raises all boats. Our belief is that if we can improve the experience for everyone, then everyone will benefit scientifically and commercially.
How does AXON compare to other products on the market? What sets it apart?
AXON is the first product utilizing machine vision technology to stabilize images for in situ microscopy. Other companies are still working on hardware approaches, for example, trying to beat physics by reducing the thermal mass of their holders and MEMS devices. We realized several years ago that a paradigm shift was needed to provide microscopists with the experience they demand and is possible with modern-day electron microscopes. There is no such thing as a “perfect” TEM holder, but we knew through software, we could essentially make one. Most importantly, however, we believe the value we create is in the data our users collect. The higher the quality and the better its organized, the more impactful the results will be. We’re looking to fundamentally change everything.
What is in store for the future of AXON? Are there other capabilities and developments that the product can be utilized for?
We designed AXON with a modular architecture. Our first module is called Synchronicity, and it's the foundation for the product. This is the module that provides drift correction, focus, and data synchronization. Going forward, Protochips has a full R&D pipeline for new features and new modules that will impact many different applications. We’re certainly excited for the next few years and this is just the beginning.
Where can our readers go to find out more?
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a movie is worth a million! Much of what I’m describing is best seen through video, so I’d suggest following our website, YouTube channel and social media. We have short segments of data as well as several small videos that introduce the product and the demonstration experience.
About David Nackashi
Trained as an Electrical Engineer, David is the CEO and co-founded Protochips after struggling with gathering data during his graduate research. He and his colleagues often wished they would visualize processes at a very small scale, taking advantage of electron microscopy. Protochips commercialized MEMS technology, revolutionizing in situ microscopy. His passion today is applying modern machine vision technologies to the field in order to greatly increase the quality and throughput of research.
David obtained a bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a Masters and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University. He worked for Alcatel Telecom early in his career and cofounded Protochips shortly after completing his graduate work.
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