X-rays can help reveal anything from bombs hidden in luggage to tumors in breasts, but some potentially vital clues might be too faint to capture with conventional methods. Now a new x-ray technique adapted from atom smashers could resolve more key details.

Conventional x-ray imaging works much like traditional photography, relying on the light—in this case, x-rays—that a target absorbs, transmits and scatters. To make out fine details, one typically needs a lot of x-rays, either over time, which can expose targets to damaging levels of radiation, or all at once from powerful sources such as circular particle accelerators, or synchrotrons, which are expensive.

Instead physicist Alessandro Olivo of University College London and his colleagues suggest imaging an object by looking for very small deviations in an x-ray’s direction as it moves through that object. Their idea is to take such x-ray phase-contrast imaging, which has been used in synchrotrons for more than 15 years, and use it with conventional x-rays.

The scientists rig conventional x-ray sources with gold grates that are 100 microns or so thick—one in front of a target and one behind it. The holes on one grate do not line up exactly with the holes on the other, meaning x-rays that passed in straight lines through the first grate would get filtered out by the second, lowering background noise. The detector then analyzes only the photons that deviated in direction as they passed through the object. This can lead to at least 10 times greater contrast than conventional imaging—“all details are more clearly visible, and details classically considered very hard to detect become detectable,” Olivo says of findings reported recently in Applied Optics. Whereas bombs are usually visible in conventional x-ray imaging, they can be confused with other materials such as plastics or liquids. The scientists are now pushing imaging sensitivity even further with new grating designs and are working on 3-D scanning techniques by coming at the target from multiple angles.

This system can generate images in just seconds, far quicker than other x-ray phase-contrast techniques, which cannot exert as much power during scanning and thus require minutes, says radiation physicist David Bradley of the University of Surrey in England, who did not take part in this study. But it remains unclear if this system could work fast enough for security scanning, says materials scientist Philip Withers of the University of Manchester in England. Withers does think the technology could lead to better medical imaging, as well as improvements in detecting defects in materials used in aerospace work.