Photo: ESRF

Danish elite researcher develops new European 3D X-ray microscope

Friday 01 Sep 17


Henning Friis Poulsen
DTU Physics
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About Henning Friis Poulsen

Professor at DTU since 2004. Special expertise in materials research and imaging using neutron and X-ray radiation.

Henning Friis Poulsen’s team of researchers comprises colleagues from DTU Physics, DTU Energy and DTU Mechanical Engineering.


The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) is a pan-European synchrotron for research within physics, applying a kind of X-ray radiation. ESRF is located in Grenoble, France.

Just a few days ago, the large pan-European research facility ESRF in France decided that its new flagship project will be a 3D microscope. The microscope was developed by a Danish professor sponsored by EU funding for particularly talented researchers.

“By copying techniques from an electron microscope, I have enabled the X-ray microscope to see what happens inside a material. It’s like watching a high-resolution 3D movie with razor-sharp images—and the microscope is able to capture the fast changes occurring when a material is affected during use,” explains Henning Friis Poulsen, DTU Physics.

The large ESRF research synchrotron in France, jointly owned by 22 countries, allowed him to create a ‘small sandbox’ where he could build his microscope and enable it to work in practice using the X-ray light from the synchrotron. He and his team have been working on developing and refining the microscope through the past six years.

Completely new possibilities for understanding and developing new materials
“The microscope opens up new research possibilities in materials and their use. We can now look into a material or component without first having to cut it up and thus affect its structure. The majority of hard materials, such as metals, ceramics, construction materials, rocks and ice, comprise many different elements, just like the human body. In a human, this would be DNA, molecules, cells, etc. In the same way, there are many different elements and scales in hard materials that are interdependent on and mutually affect each other. We would like to be able to see these dynamics inside a material while in use, and this will be possible in future with the microscope we have developed,” explains Professor Friis Poulsen.

Materials research and development of new products has previously been a lengthy process, largely based on trial and error. Somewhat simplified put, researchers and industrial developers have tried different approaches until they found a solution that worked. This development process can be greatly reduced in future if the design of materials and products can instead be based on computer models. However, this requires better materials models, which can now be developed. Future results may be, for example, improved batteries, more 3D-printed items and sensors with improved properties.

Henning Friis Poulsen’s ERC grant expires in November 2017. However, ESRF has decided already that the technology in the first microscope, which was ready in 2016, is so promising that they will ramp it up to a so-called flagship project.

“Naturally, I’m both proud and pleased that the granting of EU funding has materialised into such a specific result. As a researcher, it’s amazing to see our work embodied in an X-ray microscope which is immediately given the status of European flagship project,” concludes Henning Friis Poulsen.

ERC Advanced Grants

The European Research Council (ERC) awards several different grants. Since 2008, the EU has awarded the so-called ERC Advanced Grants to particularly talented researchers, , who—with the support of funding—can conduct pioneering high-risk research. 

This recognition was bestowed on DTU for the first time in 2011 when Professor Henning Friis Poulsen was awarded the grant for his project to develop a new X-ray microscope which not only studies the surface of materials, but looks further inside.

A total of 49 Danish researchers have been awarded the grant to date.

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