Quantum Detectors’ electron microscopy camera, now 6x faster after Wiresmith Technology software upgrade

By James McNally | Case Studies

Quantum Detectors brings cutting edge technology to elite research facilties around the world. Their flagship microscopy camera was already a world-leader in detection imaging, but the company wanted to give their clients more: equipment that was more effective and more time-efficient. 

The specialist knowledge required for delivering a software upgrade of this complexity meant they needed to bring in someone with both LabVIEW and National Instruments [NI] FPGA experience.

The client: Quantum Detectors

Quantum Detectors is a spinout from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Diamond Light Source, the UK’s synchrotron.

The company specialises in making the previously-unavailable detection systems, and the technology of these two world-leading scientific facilities, accessible to elite research facilities and commercial customers around the world, to the benefit of the wider scientific community.

Meet Merlin, Quantum Detectors’ imaging system

MerlinEM Detector

In essence, Merlin is a camera that uses CERN’s Medipix3 sensor to image X-rays and electrons at high resolution.

Primarily used by research scientists and universities, Merlin can be used to examine the properties of a material to enable a better understanding of how it works. For instance, studying a material’s magnetic properties may enable the construction of significantly longer-lasting batteries – which would have enormous implications for the energy industry and the environment.

Dr Eduardo Nebot, Detector Scientist at Quantum Detectors, elaborated:

“When you understand the dynamics of how a material works, you can apply it in the real world.

For instance, graphene is being hailed as a ‘wonder ingredient’. Once we understand how it operates, this easily accessible, cheap-to-manufacture material could well be the eco-replacement of plastic.”

The Challenge: How to make Merlin even faster 

Already producing acquisitions at an impressive rate of 300 fps, Merlin’s underlying technology was actually capable of 2000 fps. Unlocking this capacity would enable Merlin users to cut scan times significantly. 

To achieve this, Merlin’s software architecture would need to be redesigned to make it easier to extend and better able to handle the high-resolution, high-speed image acquisitions required for STEM (scanning transmission electron microscopy) applications. If time and money had allowed, Quantum Detectors may have opted for a whole new product development. But this would take years.

Instead, as the system had been developed by Diamond Light Source, they knew it was upgradable. The faster, more cost-effective solution would be to find a software expert who could overhaul the system.

LabVIEW and optimised C code multi-linguist needed

Quantum Detectors needed someone who not only knew LabVIEW, but who could also integrate highly-optimised C code when LabVIEW reached its limitations, to further boost running speeds.

Speed wasn’t the only issue. The intricate structure meant any changes in the intercommunication between different blocks of software could have serious implications elsewhere.

Fortunately, some of Eduardo’s peers had met James McNally, of Wiresmith Technology, and recommended him.

The process was broken into three phased upgrades

With James in place, the first and biggest phase was the performance upgrade. The goal of drastically increasing the frame rate meant a hardware upgrade was needed. As Eduardo notes:

“It was very useful to have James, because he was the expert on the type of products that we were using and was able to recommend which piece of hardware would be the best for us, which we really appreciated.”

Through restructuring and introducing multi-threading, James’s first iteration pushed the system up to 800 fps on the existing hardware. A huge improvement on the existing 300 fps, but still not fast enough.

“James was always very open to come on site, implement changes and explain what was happening and how everything was progressing, even taking some of the hardware away when needed.”  

Further work on the hardware and software pushed the rate higher again, this time up to 1,200 fps, but only for short bursts of time.

A Kintex 7 FlexRIO Provided a Performance Boost

Upgraded FPGA cards and further optimisation enabled the computers to process a massive 5 times faster. Boosting the acquisition rate from 1,200 fps in short bursts, up to 2,000 fps continuously.

Great results from the performance upgrade led to additional upgrades

After witnessing the results from the complicated first phase upgrade, the team at Quantum Detectors were confident that James was the person to deliver the next two phases. These involved restructuring the software to be able to modify the building blocks already in place, allowing the system to be further upgraded in the future, and developing a new user interface.

Influencing system run speeds

Quantum Detector’s customers had asked if there was a way to vary how much of the Medipix chip is read at any one time, allowing them to change the system running speeds.

James worked with their hardware team to interface with the Medipix chip’s Region of Interest (ROI) functionality. Together they were able to complete this major restructure and further unlock the technology’s capability, allowing acquisition at tens of thousands of frames per second.

While this had always been an ambition for the upgrade, an impressed Eduardo commented:

“We didn’t think that this was going to come as fast or even at all at this stage.”

Online analysis further speeds up research

In the final of the three phased upgrades, a dedicated interface for STEM users was added. This interface allows them to perform online analysis, capturing immediate feedback on their scans.

The software restructure meant this could be based on the new underlying system, without compromising the performance or ability to add features in the future.

Not only did this further save time and improve the functionality and end-customer usability of the system, it’s also another example of building in as yet unknown future progress into the system today.

The end result

Quantum Detectors can now give their customers greater speeds and versatility. They have a world-class system that can run continuously at 2,000 fps and that can be updated and upgraded as further innovations occur, securing a long and successful future for the product.

When asked what it was like working with James, Eduardo couldn’t have been more complimentary, saying:

“He’s been very responsive, and is obviously very knowledgeable of LabVIEW and National Instruments [NI]. 

It’s been really good to see how involved he is with his work. Also rather importantly from my perspective, it’s really pleasant to work with him.”

You can find out more about Quantum Detectors’ Merlin and its incredible breakthrough delivering performance at https://quantumdetectors.com/n/products/merlinem/

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About the Author

I founded Wiresmith Technology to help engineers improve their systems and products with quality measurement systems. I'm a Certified LabVIEW Architect, Certified LabVIEW Embedded Developer and LabVIEW Champion.

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