03 March 2012

What Lobsters Can Teach Us About X-Ray Vision

An article published in How Stuff Works last November highlighted how lobsters are being used by the U.S. Dept. of Home Security to develop new technology for x-ray imaging. Why lobsters? Because they have one of the most unique vision systems in the animal kingdom.

Humans and most other animals have vision that works by refraction. Because of the curved rods andcones in our eyes, light that enters our eyes bounces out at a different angle. In contrast, a lobster’s vision works by reflection. This means that when light enters a lobster’s eyes, the light bounces off thousands of tiny squares and comes back out at the same straight angle, which sends all the light beams to a single focal point.

How does this related to x-rays? Normally, when an x-ray generator sends x-rays through an object, some materials absorb the rays, while others refract or reflect them. The materials that absorb the rays (such as bones in a human body) are what shows up most clearly on an x-ray scan. However, the refraction causes a problem, since the beams are refracted at different angles and affect the clarity of the image.

Video: Phased Control X-Ray Imaging

The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security is funding a project by the Physical Optics Corporation that applies the lobster’s vision system to x-ray imaging. The corporation has created a scanner appropriately called the “Lobster Eye X-Ray Imaging Device” (LEXID) which imitates the lobster’s vision system. It uses an optics system made of thousands of tiny metallic squares that align the x-rays and reflect them into a small focused area.

The LEXID can see through concrete, wood, and 3-inch steel walls. This allows the rays to easily see inside cargo containers at airports and trucks at border crossings. But there are lots of other practical uses outside homeland security. House inspectors could use the rays to spot termites. Archeologists could use them to look inside delicate structures without disturbing them. Astronomers are even using this technology in a telescope to look for dark matter.

Sounds like we should have given Superman and his x-ray vision a different name – Lobsterman.

This article is written by Annie Evans. Annie Evans is a radiologist who loves writing about a variety of health and science topics. She is also the owner of a site called Become an X-Ray Technician for those interested in a career in radiology.


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Written by Annie Evans