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Process Used to Make UNH Space Instrument Has Medical Applications
DURHAM, N.H. -- From the frontiters of space to the the frontiers of medicine: development of a University of New Hampshire space sensor may help in the fight against breast cancer. A Massachusetts company, aiding in the construction of a UNH-designed collimator assembly, as a result developed improved mammography imaging technology.

The collimator assembly is part of UNH's Solar Energetic Particle Ionic Charge Analyzer (SEPICA), aboard the NASA Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), in orbit between the Earth and the Sun since its August, 1997 launch.

Under the direction of Eberhard Moebius, UNH professor of physics, the UNH Space Science Center team -- located within the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space -- developed SEPICA to measure the temperature of solar flares.

SEPICA examines the composition of accelerated particles flowing from the Sun and other interstellar and galactic sources by using a collimator to focus the particle stream onto sensitive detectors deep in the instrument.

The UNH team envisioned the collimator as a stack of multiple layers of thin beryllium copper plates precisely aligned one on top of the other. Each layer contained several small, rectangular openings, with each layer a slightly larger distance between the openings, a challenging manufacturing problem, says Moebius.

The critical collimator plates were manufactured by Thermo Electron/Tecomet, in Woburn, Mass. The manufacturing process used is known as "precision wet etching."

"The instrument's optical specifications required us to push Tecomet well beyond the established standards for wet etching, and Tecomet pulled it off," says Mark Granoff, UNH senior research project engineer.

Tecomet serves the design/manufacturing needs of orthopedic, bio-medical, aerospace and high technology commercial markets.

The company found that etching the openings to the desired precision was difficult, particularly since both size and location of the rectangles had to be almost perfect, which required a tight control of the etching process to insure consistency for all etched components. Also posing a challenge was the necessary layer-to-layer accuracy with a separate tool for each individual layer.

According to Donna Baker, Tecomet's Inside Sales Manager, "Through the manufacturing of these collimator plates, Tecomet developed processing approaches and techniques which have allowed us to expand our customer base."

For example, a new product based on this technique has substantially improved the collimation of x-rays in medical applications for both photo and image-intensifier technologies. It allows x-ray photos and tomography with much higher resolution. "This is indeed a major breakthrough in mammography technology which now allows for much earlier detection of breast cancer," says Baker. "By facing a difficult manufacturing challenge and providing the university with a superior product, we opened many new doorways to cutting-edge technologies."

By Carmelle Druchniak
UNH News Bureau