News

British camera maps moon metals; engineering the immune system; how to help office workers sleep better; headphones interfering with heart implants; medical uses for land-mine radars, and more.

British camera maps moon metals

By James Hayes

Scientists at the Open University are hoping to use data from India's new lunar orbiter to learn more about what the Moon is made of.

Dr Mahesh Anand and Dr David Rothery of the OU's Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CESPAR) are co-investigators of an instrument on----board the Indian Space Research Organisation's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, which entered lunar orbit on 8 November.

The Chandrayaan-1 Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (C1XS) is part of the European Space Agency's contribution to the mission. It was jointly developed by the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and ISRO Satellite Centre, Bangalore, to deliver elemental mapping of the moon using X-ray fluorescence.

During its 24-month mission Chandrayaan-1 will explore the lunar surface with an array of 11 scientific instruments including cameras, spectrometers and synthetic aperture radar.

The objective is to produce high-resolution maps of the lunar surface showing the three main rock-forming elements - magnesium, aluminium and silicon - under normal solar conditions, as well as other elements including iron, and titanium during solar flare events.

C1XS principal investigator Professor Manuel Grande, head of solar system physics at the University of Wales Institute of Mathematics and Physics, said mapping operations were scheduled to begin in mid-November, after the Indian descent probe was launched.

"What we map depends on the Sun," Professor Grande told E&T. "Initially we will concentrate on times when a solar X-ray flare produces a high signal for us - these cannot be predicted. If the illumination was constant, we could map nearly the whole moon in one month, one 25km pixel at a time. In practice, it will take a couple of years."

Office workers sleep better when they get the blues

By Dominic Lenton

Adding a little bit of blue to standard white-light fluorescent tubes can help workers stay more alert during the day, and sleep better at night, according to researchers who carried out a study at the offices of electronics distributor RS Components.

Recent years have seen emerging evidence for a number of physiological effects that can be attributed to exposure to artificial light. These include suppression of the hormone melatonin, shifting of the daily circadian rhythms that influence body functions, elevation of body temperature and changes in heart rate.

At the same time, studies in which volunteers were scanned using photon emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging have suggested that different kinds of light can have different effects on alertness and performance. A possible mechanism is a recently discovered photoreceptive system that depends on melanopsin, a pigment found in the retina that is particularly sensitive to wavelengths of around 480nm.

Because the most obvious effects are observed at night, most laboratory studies have concentrated on this effect. Researchers from the Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey wanted to find out whether exposure during the day could also have a significant effect.

They recruited 104 white-collar workers who spend their weekdays on two near-identical floors of a large office building in the north of England used by RS Components.

After baseline assessments under existing lighting conditions, every volunteer was exposed to two new lighting conditions, each lasting four weeks. Both types of fluorescent tube were manufactured by Philips, but one was from the company's blue-enriched Activiva range and the other a traditional white light.

Throughout the two months, questionnaires and rating scales were used to assess alertness, mood, sleep quality, performance, mental effort, headache and eye strain.

According to results published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, workers exposed to the blue-enriched light showed improvements in subjective measures of positive moods, work performance, fatigue in the evening, irritability, ability to concentrate and focus and eye strain associated with the blue-enriched light. They also reported sleeping better at night.

The researchers speculate that the mechanism by which blue-enriched white light exerts its non-visual effects probably involves melanopsin-expressing ganglion cells in the retina, which link with the parts of the brain known to play a part in regulating sleepiness, attention and working memory. They admit, however, that the positive effects participants thought the blue light had on sleep quality were "somewhat surprising".

Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, who led the experiment, believes the results suggest that employers could benefit from reviewing the artificial light their staff work under all day. "This research may indeed imply that our currently used artificial office lighting is sub-optimal for maintaining alertness," he said.

Mike Lea, who is RS Components' product manager for lighting and was involved with the study, said that the new lights were generally very well received.

"At the end of the trial, when we conducted our own poll of the users, 75 per cent voted strongly in favour of the blue-enriched lights. This rose to 92 per cent either in favour or with no strong feelings. Having used the Activiva lights for 18 months, their popularity continues to grow with the users," he said.

Philips Activiva lights are now being used as standard on both of the trial floors and are about to be installed in RS's customer contact centre. Several office areas in the company's large warehouse which have no natural daylight have also been changed over.

E&T editor wins top accolade

By James Hayes

Engineering & Technology's editor-in-chief Dickon Ross has been named 'Editor of the Year - Business & Professional Magazines (non-weekly)' at the 2008 British Society of Magazine Editors Awards.

Ross beat competition from ten other shortlisted contenders, including Management Today, Director and The Practitioner to scoop the prestigious prize, which was presented at the Hilton Hotel on 4 November in front of an audience of 632 top editors, journalists and publishers. Praising Ross's achievement, the BSME Awards judges said the magazine 'oozed confidence'.

"I'm absolutely thrilled with this honour," Ross says. "It's great recognition for the hard work that all the team has put in to make E&T the market leader."

Dickon Ross joined the IET in 2002, where he conceived and launched Flipside, a glossy, picture-led magazine aimed at teenagers, with readership of over 300,000. He has been a science and technology journalist since 1990. He was a reporter and news editor for Electronics Times before joining Focus magazine, which he then went on to edit.

Engineering the immune system

By Chris Edwards

Undergraduate students from around the world converged on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in early November, hoping to win a prize for the best genetically engineered organism. But many had another aim: putting together the beginnings of a biological technology that might deal with the world's deadliest diseases and worst toxic spills.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition has grown from just five US-based teams in 2004 to more than 80 groups vying for a place in the final. Over 800 undergraduates and advisers turned up for the weekend event to describe their work, mostly conducted during the summer break.

Many chose to deal with disease, energy and environmental problems. The winning team from Slovenia developed the basis for a possible vaccine against a widespread bacterium that could represent the eighth biggest cause of death around the world by 2010. Team member Jan Lozaric claimed the team had come up with a "double-barrelled shotgun" to attack Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes peptic ulcers and some forms of gastric cancer.

Normally, the bacterium evades the human immune system. "It is a master of disguise," said Lozaric. The strategy developed by the Slovenian team was to engineer a "DNA vaccine". Put into non-pathogenic cells, the DNA specifies proteins similar to those created by H pylori but with modifications that can be recognised by human anti--bodies. This kick-starts the body's immune response. In mice, the DNA changes triggered an immune response that let the animal's cells attack H pylori.

Lozaric said the team now intends to complete animalstudies, with the ultimate aim of moving to clinical studies.

Of the runners-up, a team from the Californian Institute of Technology (Caltech) worked on an artificial pro-biotic bacterium that could live in the human gut and provide three different functions: kill off nearby pathogenic bacteria, make vitamin supplements, and help people who suffer from lactose intolerance by breaking the chemical down.

Students from the Taipei team, one of the six finalists, took on the idea of augmenting pro-biotic bacteria to the point where they could perform dialysis functions for people without a working kidney. Once swallowed, the BactoKidney capsule would pass through the stomach, attaching itself to the intestine wall under control of a pH sensor, which would also activate production of chemicals to break down urea and other substances released into the gut. After a fixed time it would detach and pass out of the body.

Although the event has grown ten-fold over four years, iGEM organiser Randy Rettberg said he was planning for 50 per cent annual growth over at least the next two years, and that more than 700 teams might ultimately take part as universities become more aware of synthetic biology's possibilities and how they can use the competition in teaching.

Rettberg commented: "For several years, I have been explaining synthetic biology by saying we have a question to answer. Can simple biological systems be built from standard interchangeable parts and operated in living cells? Or is biology so complex that each case is unique?

"Now," he continued, "the question is starting to look a little silly. It is obvious you can do this, or least the undergraduates can."

High-tech clinic for vehicles

By Bob Cervi

A centre that will develop vehicle-health monitoring systems for all forms of transport has opened in the UK with the backing of major aerospace companies.

The Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM) Centre has been set up by Cranfield University with support from US aircraft maker Boeing as lead partner as well as BAE Systems, Meggitt, Rolls-Royce, Thales and the East of England Development Agency.

The Bedfordshire centre, which has £5m of funding over five years, aims to develop existing vehicle health-management systems to offer a "total health check for high-tech, high-value assets", according to Cranfield.

Sensors distributed throughout a vehicle will collect data on the condition of components and subsystems, while on-board processors assess their health and predict possible deterioration and future life.

The aim is to enable manufacturers, their supply chain partners and customers to anticipate when a crucial component such as a plane engine part needs maintenance, repair or replacement, as well as ensuring these components are working normally.

Cranfield said the centre would bring together the 'building-block' technologies it already offers for the aerospace and automotive sectors, and develop these for a range of manufacturing and service industries including defence, road, rail and marine transport, and even patient healthcare.

William Gerry, global technology manager for Boeing, said he expected the Cranfield facility to become "a centre of gravity for integrated vehicle-health monitoring in the West, if not worldwide".

Gerry said Boeing's motive for creating the centre with Cranfield was to gain a "key competitive advantage" against rival manufacturers through offering enhanced service levels for its airline customers.

He said that Boeing's customers now wanted to have health-monitoring capabilities built into the aircraft and their systems, rather than having them added on later. The process would enable the company to develop its aftersales service for clients, which was becoming an increasingly important part of its operations as a manufacturer.

Headphones interfere with heart implants

By Kris Sangani

Heart patients who have been fitted with pacemakers or implantable defibrillators have been warned against placing the headphones of their MP3 players in their top pockets or draping them over their hearts.

According to research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2008, many headphones contain the magnetic substance neodymium, which could adversely affect the operation of cardiac implants.

Earlier this year an FDA report concluded that interactions are unlikely between MP3 players such as the iPod and implanted cardiac devices.

"We became interested in knowing whether the headphones which contain magnets - not the MP3 players, themselves - would interact with implanted cardiac devices," said Dr William H Maisel, senior author of the study and director of the Medical Device Safety Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston.

Maisel said doctors use magnets in a clinical setting to test pacemakers, which treat slow heart rhythms. When exposed to magnets, these devices automatically pace, sending low-energy signals to the heart to make it beat. Defibrillators, which treat slow and dangerously fast heart rhythms, send either low- or high-energy signals to the heart, but when near magnets may temporarily stop looking for abnormal heart rhythms.

Implanted cardiac devices that react in these ways to magnets outside the clinical setting can be potentially dangerous for patients who rely on their lifesaving technologies.

Researchers tested eight different models of MP3 player headphones (including both the clip-on and earbud variety) with iPods on 60 defibrillator and pacemaker patients.

"We placed the headphones on the patients' chests, directly over where their devices are located, monitoring them for evidence of an interaction," Maisel said.

The researchers found a detectable interference with the device by the headphones in 14 patients, (23 per cent). Specifically, they observed that 15 per cent of the pacemaker patients and 30 per cent of the defibrillator patients had a magnet response.

"For patients with pacemakers, exposure to the headphones can force the device to deliver signals to the heart, causing it to beat without regard to the patient's underlying heart rhythm," said Maisel. "Exposure of a defibrillator to the headphones can temporarily deactivate it." In most cases, removal of the headphones restores normal device function.

Field strength of 10 gauss at the site of the pacemaker or defibrillator has the potential to interact with the device. The researchers found that some of the head--phones had field strengths as high as 200 gauss or more.

"Even at those high levels, we did not observe any interactions when the headphones were at least 3cm from the skin's surface," Maisel commented. "Patients should keep their headphones at least 3 cm from their implantable devices."

Low-carbon R&D faces funding fog

By Pelle Neroth

Europeans may not be the world's largest carbon emitters - that honour goes to China - but it's still a problem. Yet how can one finance the battle against climate change with a financial crisis raging? Far from being resolved, the question was the subject of intense discussion at a conference organised by France, holders of the EU presidency, at the end of October.

In attendance were President Sarkozy, EU research commissionner Janez Potocnik, the heads of several giant French enterprises such Alstom, and numerous green NGOs. There was general agreement that the campaign against global warming mustn't falter just because of the economic crisis.

The conference came at a time when 10 European research institutes have banded together to form the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA). Between them, the institutes have a budget of over €1.3bn, and their aim is to speed up the development of the new energy technologies that Europe needs if it is to address the triple challenge of climate change, energy security and competitiveness.

Meanwhile, a report from the European Renewable Energy Council has found that global investment in green technologies reached $148bn in 2007, with similar figures expected for this year. But the recession, the collapse in the price of oil, and the price of emitting a tonne of CO2 at €19 in the Emissions Trading Scheme could dampen EU member states' enthusiasm for investing as much as experts say is needed.

Analysts say, further, that the price of CO2 needs to hit at least €25 a tonne for progress in energy efficiency to be profitable in the long term.

So, the question of paying for research in technologies to combat climate change is far from clear. While the conference agreed on generalities, there was little detail on the financing aspects.

The European Commission is supposed to present, at the beginning of 2009, a communication to clarify the financing details regarding the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan). Public-private partnerships have been mooted, but it is impossible to know today how many member states are willing to use this instrument. The industrialists at the conference pleaded for strong public financial support for research and development: not for them, they said, to carry the whole burden for a technological revolution.

Another proposal on sources of finance concerns a change in the system of CO2 allocations. But the member states in the system take a poor view of the 'pre-allocation' of money collected from them, preferring to spend it as they wish.

A third idea is take money out of the structural funds kitty. These are currently spent on supporting Europe's poorer regions. But such a shift remains, for the moment, just an idea.

The president of the European Investment Bank (EIB), Philippe Meystadt, had proposals that most attracted the interest of the French press. Apart from financing the SET Plan, the EIB is proposing a unique payment mechanism to fund sustainable energy, create an expert group to coordinate and support national investments and support low-carbon technologies for transport, in particular companies investing in industrial innovation.

Fat-spotting software keeps track of hair loss

By Dominic Lenton

A manufacturer of personal care products has found a new use for sophisticated image analysis software - testing exactly how well hair removal techniques work.

The November issue of the journal Skin Research and Technology reports how the unnamed UK company worked with experts from the Biotech Imaging team at Australian research agency CSIRO to find a more accurate way of assessing the effectiveness of its products.

The usual approach of manual 'before and after' hair counting by human assessors is a boring job, and results are prone to errors and variations between different people, admitted the CSIRO biotech imaging leader Dr Pascal Valloton.

CSIRO says the software can provide information about the length and number of hairs "almost instantly" by analysing images captured from a small flatbed scanner pressed onto the skin.

The linear feature algorithms the software uses are similar to those developed by the team for medical research to measure the branching structure of nerve cells and to find the boundaries of fat cells. In this application, they are tailored to recognise characteristics peculiar to hairs, such as their relative straightness.

"You can compare the results with earlier images to see if hair is growing quickly or slowly or has been properly removed by, say, a depilatory cream," said Valloton. "The software can even detect hairs that people find hard to see, and it's not confused by variations in background skin colour or texture."

Innovation celebration

By Dominic Lenton

The 2008 IET Innovation Awards were announced in London earlier this month, and the winning entries included a novel airport security scanner, a mobile phone banking system for developing countries and the technology behind a GPS-enabled digital camera.

The awards, which are divided into 15 categories, highlight the importance of innovation by celebrating its application across a range of engineering disciplines. The winning entries were announced at a ceremony at the Park Plaza Riverbank, London hosted by TV presenter Maggie Philbin.

One company with double cause for celebration was UK-based Kromek, which took top place in both the security and transport sections with its energy-selective X-ray detectors that accurately identify threat materials in security applications.

Since it was spun out from the physics department at the University of Durham in 2003 as Durham Scientific Crystals, the company's pioneering digital colour imaging for X-rays has brought ground-breaking innovation to materials technology. Rebranded as Kromek in May this year, the company now specialises in making semiconductor materials within the cadmium telluride family that have applications as detectors of X-rays and gamma rays, notably in medical imaging, security screening, industrial inspection and space exploration.

Alongside semiconductor materials, detector packages and non-imaging detection systems, Kromek also supplies X-ray imaging packages with multi-view capabilities that it claims are the first to provide real 3D X-ray imaging without specialist viewing equipment.

As airports continue to restrict passengers transporting liquids in hand luggage, the company is developing a range of scanners. A digital colour X-ray detector for the rapid identification of liquid inside a bottle without the need to open it or sample the contents will be launched this month in Dubai and in December in Washington.

Chief executive Dr Arnab Basu said: "We are delighted and honoured to have won these awards. They underline the fact that ours is a world-class technology that has moved from the R&D stage to the commercialisation of products which may soon be used in airports across the UK and further afield."

Another winner whose work could find applications all over the world is technology company Sagentia, named top in the telecommunications category for the M-PESA mobile technology platform. Developed with Vodafone to provide secure financial services to people without access to banking, M-PESA has exceeded expectations since it was launched in Kenya last year and now has more than 1.6 million customers, with 200,000 joining every month.

'Start-Up of the Year' was Air Semiconductor, recognised both for its innovative business model and its always-on GPS technology, claimed to deliver the lowest-power solution for mobile devices such as phones and laptops. The first product to use the breakthrough technology, which allows battery-operated devices to be continuously aware of their location, is the Airwave-1 device for use in digital cameras.

Air co-founder Stephen Graham said the award was a milestone for the company, set up two years ago and now with bases in the UK, US and Japan. "This award recognises years of hard work, research, engineering and development to pioneer the world's first Always-On GPS solution for portable electronic devices. It is a milestone for Air that the unique innovation in our first product, Airwave-1 for digital cameras, has been recognised by leading industry veterans."

Kromek wasn't the only double winner. Liquid Lever Solutions took home both product design and sustainability prizes for its moisture-activated irrigation valve, an invention that the judging panel said has huge implications for developing countries. The experts described it as "a superbly innovative, self-activating, zero-energy device of worldwide benefit to humanity, using a novel approach to make a major improvement in the conservation of irrigation water supplies. Simple, highly effective and able to deliver major social benefits."

IET chief executive Robin McGill commented: "The entries that made it to the shortlist are a very impressive roll-call of innovation, and although it may be a cliché to say 'everyone is a winner', in this case I am sure it is true. The awards highlight the depth and breadth of innovative work that is being carried out and it is clear from the range of entries that innovation is alive and well. The work undertaken on the projects highlighted by the Innovation Awards will help businesses grow and develop and have a positive impact in many areas." 

Winners

Asset management (sponsorNational Grid)

Three Valleys Water: pptimising capital maintenance planning.

Built environment (sponsor: Halcrow Yolles)

Test Marshal: automated testing of fixed wiring.

Electronics (sponsor: Withers & Rogers LLP)

Algotronix: DesignTAG IP tagging system.

Emerging technologies (sponsor RS Components)

University of Bristol: integrated quantum photonics.

Information technology (sponsor: Amplicon)

UN Foundation: Mhealth wireless technology to improve public health in developing countries.

Measurement in action (sponsor: National Physical Laboratory)

LiteThru: rapid non-invasive assay in production monitoring.

Power/energy (sponsor Siemens Transmission & Distribution)

Oxsensis: Wave-Phire 1,000°C sapphire sensors for advanced combustion efficiency.

Product design (sponsor: BT)

Liquid Lever Solutions: moisture-activated irrigation valve.

Project team (sponsor: Accenture)

Integrated Alliance: collaborative engineering design and delivery.

Security

Kromek: Selective X-ray detectors for accurate threat materials identification in security applications.

Software in design (sponsor: The MathWorks)

Sundance DSP: generating parallel applications automatically from simulation models.

Start-up (sponsor: Cre8Ventures)

Air Semiconductor: business model and always-on GPS solution.

Sustainability (sponsor: ABB)

Liquid Lever Solutions: moisture-activated irrigation valve.

Telecommunications (sponsor: Nortel)

Sagentia: M-PESA mobile technology platform to provide secure financial services to people without access to banking.

Transport

Kromek: Energy-selective X-ray detectors for accurate threat material identification in security applications.

China air transport set to grow 10 per cent a year

Despite the global economic slowdown air transport in China is expected to continue growing by an average of 10 per cent a year over the next 20 years.

According to Randy Tinseth, Boeing Commercial Airplanes' vice president for marketing, domestic air travel will lead the growth, requiring 2,600 single-aisle new aircraft.

Demand for larger aircraft to connect China with other major world destinations will be limited to 100 airplanes of 747-size and larger, Tinseth said.

Airbus has banked its strategy for this market on the A380, which was first delivered to Singapore Airlines back in October 2007.

Boeing has projected that China's aviation market will require a total of 3,710 new aircraft over the next 20 years.

"China will continue to be the fastest-growing aviation centre in the world, requiring 41 per cent of the entire Asia Pacific region's airplane demand. This makes China the largest market outside the US for new commercial aircraft," Tinseth said.

Boeing has forecast that by 2027 the number of passenger and cargo aircraft in China would be 4,560, roughly equivalent to that in Europe.

The domestic Chinese cargo market is expected to grow 9.9 per cent a year, and the intra-Asian market by 8.1 per cent. Chinese carriers will add about 370 freighter craft over the next 20 years, quadrupling the total fleet size.

Globally, Boeing believes that around three-quarters of the growth in freighter numbers will come from passenger aircraft conversions.

Power firm to build $7bn coal complex

China Huadian Corp has signed an agreement with the Federal government to invest 53 billion yuan (US$7bn) in building an integrated energy complex in Hebei province, North China.

The project will involve the construction of a coal terminal, a large coal-fired plant, equipment manufacturing facilities and a coal chemical project in the Caofeidian Industrial Zone. Construction will start next year with completion scheduled for the end of 2014.

Caofeidian is an island in the Bohai Bay, 80km south of the city of Tangshan. Geographically suited to construction of large-scale deepwater port facilities, it is undergoing rapid development.

Yang Jiapeng, China Huadian's director of planning, said the new terminal will ease the transportation of coal and increase annual shipping capacity by 30 to 50 million tonnes.

Yang told E&T the complex when operational will enhance the integration of coal and power generation. "The company's coal requirement for power generation next year is expected to increase by about 25 per cent to 160 million tonnes," Yang said.

A shortage of coal in China is putting pressure on electricity generation and forcing up prices. A total of 244 coal mines have been shut down across the country this year. In the Sichuan province in the south west, 200 were closed after the earthquake in May.

China Huadian is one of the five leading power producers in China. The others are China Datang Group, China Guodian Group, China Power Investment Group and China Huaneng Corp. The five companies were spun off from China State Power Corp in 2002.

To meet growing power demand across the country China is investing 400 billion yuan to build 30 nuclear power plants by 2020, each with a capacity of 1GW.

Intel invests in China cleantech

Despite the global financial crisis Intel Capital, the investment arm of Intel Corp, is investing US$20 million to acquire a stake in Trony Solar Holdings Co. It is Intel's first penetration into China's clean technology market.

Trony Solar, which started operations in 1993, is a leading producer of thin-film solar energy products and wind power equipment in China. It is located at high-tech base in Shezhen, south China. The company will use the new investment to increase its production capacity to 105MW and boost its R&D activities.

Intel Capital has also announced investments in NP Holdings, a Chinese company specialising in electricity storage systems for renewable energy, and Viewhigh, a software solutions provider for the healthcare industry.

Cadol Cheung, managing director for Intel Capital in the Asia Pacific, declined to say how much the company is investing in NP Holdings and Viewhigh, or the equity it is acquiring in each of the three companies.

Cheung was only willing to say that the company has no plans to slow down its investment pace. "Intel Capital thinks that innovation is the way to assist companies out of the financial crisis," he told reporters at media conference in Beijing.

"China's renewable energy industry is experiencing rapid development," he added. "We believe these investments will be a catalyst to drive local cleantech innovation and help China toward the transition to a more sustainable energy system as well as economic growth."

In April the company set up a $500m Intel Capital China Tech Fund to foster innovation and entrepreneurship within China. It has invested in six companies so far, and nearly 30 companies benefited from an earlier fund.

Around 30 per cent of Intel Capital's investment portfolio is in Asia.

Land-mine radar finds medical use

By Lorna Sharpe

A radar breast-imaging system that could revolutionise the way women are scanned for breast cancer is being trialled at a hospital in Bristol.

Professor Alan Preece and Dr Ian Craddock from the University of Bristol have developed a breast-imaging device that uses radio waves and therefore has no radiation risk, unlike conventional mammograms.

Mike Shere, associate specialist breast clinician at North Bristol NHS Trust (NBT), said: "The radar breast imaging system came to Frenchay Hospital in September this year and so far around 60 women have been examined using it.

"It takes less time to operate than a mammogram - approximately six minutes for both breasts compared with 30-45 minutes for an MRI - and, like an MRI, it provides a very detailed 3D digital image. Women compare it to a mammogram and find the whole experience much more comfortable."

The radar breast imaging system is built using transmitters and receivers arranged around a ceramic cup which the breast sits in. These transmitters view the breast from several different angles.

Professor Preece explained: "We built the machine using ground-penetrating radar, a similar technique to land mine detection, to take 400 quarter-of-a-second pictures of the breast to form a 3D image.

"Women do not feel any sensation and it equates to the same type of radiation exposure as speaking into a mobile phone at arm's length, which makes it much safer."

In the coming months the team will look at images taken by both machines and examine each independently to check whether the new system's 3D image picks up the same abnormalities as a mammogram would and if anything else is identified in the new image.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the trustees of the United Bristol Hospitals and the University of Bristol spin-out Micrima Ltd have all provided funds for the project.

"This technology will ultimately only benefit the patient if it can be commercialised," said Roy Johnson, CEO of Micrima. "It could provide a safe, more comfortable experience for women as well as giving clinicians a better image of the breast, allowing them to pick up abnormalities at an earlier stage. We particularly hope that it may work well in younger women who can pose a problem to conventional mammography."

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