Davidson Will Lead in Exploring Scientific and Humanistic Capabilities of New 3D Imaging System

View a video of a Digitome scan.

Davidson physics students plowed new scientific ground in 1896 when they took the first X-ray images on American soil. Contemporary Davidson physicists now have a similarly momentous opportunity. The department has recently become the first non-governmental entity in the country to acquire a revolutionary Digitome VXI-500Fx non-destructive imaging system. The system combines a series of conventional two-dimensional x-ray images taken from various angles around an object into a three-dimensional "volumetric" screen image that can be turned, rotated and probed from any angle or plane.

Images of a Digitome scan are recorded on an 8-inch by 10-inch CCD plate rather than a piece of film. The image is therefore recorded instantly as a computer file rather than being projected onto film that must be developed.

The Digitome's unique ability to create a three-dimensional image of an object led Professor of Physics Dan Boye to hail the system as a "cross-disciplinary game changer" for Davidson. He said, "We believe we can apply the Digitome to help understand topics of interest in the humanities and social sciences."

In his proposal to purchase the system, Boye wrote, "It would foster trans-disciplinary learning and research throughout the college by partnering physics faculty and students with teaching and research efforts in other departments and programs."

For instance, Boye envisions its use by the art department to examine layers of paintings which may have been covered with other layers. Archeologists could examine mummies inside sarcophagi. Book conservators could view intricate binding techniques of rare works without having to open them.

The Digitome company has already documented several uses in the arts. A Digitome examination of a music stand owned by Mozart revealed that pieces were screwed together with reverse threading. The emperor of Japan requested a Digitome examination of an urn to see if the handle had been modified. A Digitome exam found that the general absence of cracks in the intricate enamel of a Ming vase at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art resulted from expansion joints on the inside surface. An examination of a jet engine turbine blade revealed cracks that could have been dangerous.

How It Works

The Digitome machine consists of three main parts. A generator shoots x-rays downward into a four-foot tall lead-lined cabinet. The object of the examination rests inside the cabinet on a circular plastic plate attached to the CCD plate. The CCD plate can be tilted and the plastic plate can be rotated to record as many as 32 different views of the object. The system's proprietary software immediately assembles the different views such that any 2D mathematically-defined contour can be viewed.

The system's portability, scalability, rapid results and ability to measure any aspect of tested subjects make it comparable if not superior to other techniques such as computed tomography (CT), positron electron tomography (PET), ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Though the Digitome exams are most easily accomplished in the cabinet, the mounting fixture and image plate are removable and easily portable to remote locations such as a museum for off-site examination of fragile or valuable pieces.

Physics and math major Phillip Wall '14 is spending the summer in the lab learning the Digitome system and writing user protocols. He said, "More and more I'm realizing this is a pretty big deal for Davidson, and it's fun to blaze a trail as the first student operator."

In one of his tests, Wall examined his iPod, revealing its components stacked on top of each other inside the case. His examination of a baboon's skull obtained from the biology department revealed non-emergent teeth concealed in the jawbone. He conducted an exam of a Chinese "cadogan" style wine pot with no lid which revealed the interior hollow stem that allows it to pour without spilling. He examined a closed prayer locket from the college archives to determine whether it concealed a scroll.

Wall operates sliders on the screen to control image contrast and resolution, and movement around and through the sample through image rotation, tilt and zoom.

His examination of a common gaming die vividly displayed the system's capabilities. The captured three-dimensional image began on the one-dot side of the cube. Wall then moved straight through the die to reveal the six dots on the opposite side. Through rotation and controlled movement, he revealed all the other sides of the die. "It's a graphic way to demonstrate its volumetric capability," Wall said.

Boye plans to enlist future students to learn the system as well so that they can handle requests from other departments and external agents. The techniques and skills they learn in operating the machine will prepare them to operate almost any radiographic system.

Since he has no professional training in radiography, Boye is also learning the system along with Wall. To make the most of the department's new resource, Boye has joined the American Society of Nondestructive Testing, and will attend its digital imaging meeting later this month.

Digitome's Local Connection

Boye is also enjoying the new collaboration with an outside business. Digitome is a tightly held 30-year-old corporation that has supplied imaging devices almost exclusively to the defense and aerospace industries. NASA has used its imaging products to detect cracks inside a space shuttle surface forewing, and the armed forces have examined exploded IED pieces to gain clues about their origins.

One stage in the development of the Digitome company took place in Davidson where it was housed in the Industrial Dynamics building off Griffith Street. The company is led by CEO Donald Twyman, who currently lives in the Davidson area. Twyman approached Davidson's physics department earlier this year as a means for exploring new applications for the Digitome. Impressed with the physics program and its personnel, Twyman helped arrange purchase of the machine by the college, and created a proprietary license for its software.

Twyman has been a regular visitor to the physics lab, helping Boye and Wall learn to operate the system and explore new functionalities. Boye explained, "They want to see uses that may emerge when they put the Digitome system in the hands of liberal arts students rather than engineers. This is a great opportunity for us in applied physics. Who knows? We might even discover new uses for it that could yield patents and generate revenue for the college. It's an exciting step for us not only in partnering with other departments inside the college, but with an outside, private business."

For more information contact Bill Giduz, Director of Media Relations, at 704-894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu.


  • July 8, 2013