Illuminating the Nanoscale with A.I.: Looking Deep into Advanced Microscopy
With an eye fixed firmly on the infinitesimal, Newlab member company Nanotronics endeavors to glimpse the future of technology and manufacturing. Photos courtesy of Nanotronics.
“We see past time in a telescope and present time in a microscope. Hence the apparent enormities of the present,” wrote Victor Hugo. Humans are not gifted at analyzing events with accuracy in real time—too often, our judgment and critical thinking gets clouded by details as they’re happening. AI, on the other hand, which learns by mapping the rich repetitions and patterns of data, accurately processes information in quantities that boggle the human mind.
It is also difficult for humans to imagine a world that’s too small for them to see. It is through an AI-enhanced lens that Nanotronics, the oldest and largest Newlab tenant, approaches the limits of human perspective. A nanometer is measured to be one billionth of a meter. The nanoscale may seem unfathomably small, but with efficient imaging tools, its implications are massive.
By integrating AI, robotics, and machine learning, Nanotronics developed one of the most advanced optical inspection instruments, the nSpec®. Nanotronics’ nSpec® redefines image capturing, processing, and analysis by recognizing macro trends at the microscopic level, including the nanoscale.
Nanotronics’ systems seamlessly integrate an industrial environment, feeding high-resolution images through a complex combination of neural nets and other AI models for analysis. “Our technology is agnostic to application—from improving processes on factory floors to genomics research to self-driving software,” says Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman, Ph.D. “We use the power of modern computation to improve optics in light microscopy, which enables us to see into and scale technologies that could never have been scalable before.”
Founded by Putman in 2010, along with his father and acting president, John Putman, Nanotronics provides manufacturers with comprehensive hardware and software platforms that detect features in advanced materials like microchips, nanotubes, and more.
When Putman launched Nanotronics he was a material scientist working on next-generation nanomaterials and dealing with structural DNA. “It was difficult to scale discoveries and track comprehensive findings through electron microscopes alone,” he says. “A light microscope is over 400 years old, but still one of the most incredible tools around; used for everything from inspecting consumer electronics to studying cytopathology. The core idea became: How can we make a tool capable of computational super resolution get below the diffraction level of visible light?”
The optical microscope, often referred to as the light microscope, uses visible light and a system of lenses to magnify images of small objects. On October 8th 2014, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Eric Betzig, William Moerner, and Stefan Hell for “the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,” which brought optical microscopy into the ‘nanodimension’ to study the intricate properties of organic and inorganic materials. Such breakthroughs inspired Nanotronics to take a step further, finding efficient ways to scale scientific innovations in microscopy for the realm of factory processes.
“Our first customer made gallium nitride, a material used as a transparent next-generation semiconductor in highly energy-efficient power devices,” says Putman. “There are 40 different types of defects possible, and our tools not only helped to classify the defects, but to assign specific causality.”
In April 2015, Nanotronics announced a new VR system called nVisible® that allows anyone to ‘walk through’ a 3D model of objects at the nanoscale. Scientists and engineers could potentially explore the surface of materials, genetic or otherwise, in real time and space. “In the exploration of new terrains, new technologies are needed. nVisible® was one of our first attempts to reinvent the way we experience surface topographies. We continue to be inspired by other fields,” Putman elaborates.
Industry 4.0 and enterprise IOT are big buzzwords at the moment. But we are also on the horizon of Medicine 4.0, in which a combination of AI, robotics, and advanced microscopy can accelerate approaches to diagnosing, treating, and preventing diseases.
As the 21st century welcomes the necessity of AI integration, the way we approach industrial planning, design, distribution, and energy management will undergo massive transformation. In Newlab and the Navy Yard, companies like Nanotronics are using AI and automation to illuminate innovations that will make these changes possible.
“Ultimately, we want to foster a global ecosystem for Post-Industrial 4.0 applications,” Putman explains. “How can we create a closed loop for smart factories and make efficient imaging tools for scalable manufacturing within any industry? Over the last nine years, the beauty is not only using microscopes with analytic software that can see deeper into our own world, but into the next generation of technologies and the advanced materials that build them.”
For the Fourth Industrial Revolution to reach its full potential, we need a new lens from which to see the future of manufacturing—and an adaptable infrastructure from which to build scalable solutions. Putman founded Nanotronics based on that belief: “If we want to see the path to future technologies, we need to take a closer look at the materials that build our present.”
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