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Cosmos: Painting with light in three dimensions

A new technique uses photoswitch molecules to create three-dimensional images from pure light.

A new technique uses photoswitch molecules to create three-dimensional images from pure light.

Australia’s quarterly science magazine Cosmos covered the research of SMU organic chemist Alex Lippert, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

Lippert’s team develops synthetic organic compounds that glow in reaction to certain conditions. He led his lab in developing a new technology that uses photoswitch molecules to craft 3-D light structures — not holograms — that are viewable from 360 degrees. The economical method for shaping light into an infinite number of volumetric objects would be useful in a variety of fields, from biomedical imaging, education and engineering, to TV, movies, video games and more.

For biomedical imaging, Lippert says the nearest-term application of the technique might be in high-volume pre-clinical animal imaging, but eventually the technique could be applied to provide low-cost internal imaging in the developing world, or less costly imaging in the developed world.

Cosmos reporter Joel F. Hooper wrote about the new technology in “Painting with light in three dimensions,” which published online July 14, 2017.

Lippert’s lab includes four doctoral students and five undergraduates who assist in his research. He recently received a prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award, expected to total $611,000 over five years, to fund his research into alternative internal imaging techniques.

NSF Career Awards are given to tenure-track faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research in American colleges and universities.

Lippert joined SMU in 2012. He was previously a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and Bachelor of Science at the California Institute of Technology.

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By Joel F. Hooper

Those of us who grew up watching science fiction movies and TV shows imagined our futures to be filled with marvellous gadgets, but we’ve sometimes been disappointed when science fails to deliver. We can’t take a weekend trip to Mars yet, and we’re still waiting for hoverboards that actually hover.

But in the case of 3-D image projection, the technology used by R2D2 in Star Wars is making its way into reality. Using advances in fluorescent molecules that can be switched on by UV light, scientists at Southern Methodist University in Dallas have created a method for producing images and animations by structuring light in 3-dimentions.

The technology uses a solution of fluorescent molecules called rhodamines, which have the potential to emit visible light when they are excited by a light beam of the right wavelength. But these molecules are usually in an inactive state, and must be “switched on” by UV light before they can become emitters. When a UV light or visible light beam alone shines through the solution, the rhodamines to not emit light. But where these two beams intersect, the emitting molecules are both switched on and excited, and can produce a small glowing 3D pixel, known as a voxel.

When a number of voxels are produced at once, using two projectors positioned at 90° to a flask containing a solution of the fluorescent molecules, a 3D image is produced.

“Our idea was to use chemistry and special photoswitch molecules to make a 3D display that delivers a 360-degree view,” says Alexander Lippert, lead author of the study. “It’s not a hologram, it’s really three-dimensionally structured light.”

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By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs