Letter | Published:

Ptychographic X-ray computed tomography at the nanoscale

Nature volume 467, pages 436439 (23 September 2010) | Download Citation


X-ray tomography is an invaluable tool in biomedical imaging. It can deliver the three-dimensional internal structure of entire organisms as well as that of single cells, and even gives access to quantitative information, crucially important both for medical applications and for basic research1,2,3,4. Most frequently such information is based on X-ray attenuation. Phase contrast is sometimes used for improved visibility but remains significantly harder to quantify5,6. Here we describe an X-ray computed tomography technique that generates quantitative high-contrast three-dimensional electron density maps from phase contrast information without reverting to assumptions of a weak phase object or negligible absorption. This method uses a ptychographic coherent imaging approach to record tomographic data sets, exploiting both the high penetration power of hard X-rays and the high sensitivity of lensless imaging7,8,9. As an example, we present images of a bone sample in which structures on the 100 nm length scale such as the osteocyte lacunae and the interconnective canalicular network are clearly resolved. The recovered electron density map provides a contrast high enough to estimate nanoscale bone density variations of less than one per cent. We expect this high-resolution tomography technique to provide invaluable information for both the life and materials sciences.

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We acknowledge technical support by X. Donath, FIB preparation of the specimen by P. Gasser and M. Meier and the assistance of W. Gutscher during the experiments. P.T., M.D. and F.P. acknowledge support through the DFG Cluster of Excellence “Munich-Centre for Advanced Photonics”.

Author information

Author notes

    • Cameron M. Kewish

    Present address: Synchrotron SOLEIL, Saint-Aubin BP-48, 91192 Gif-sur-Yvette, France.


  1. Department of Physics (E17), Technische Universität München, 85748 Garching, Germany

    • Martin Dierolf
    • , Pierre Thibault
    •  & Franz Pfeiffer
  2. Swiss Light Source, Paul Scherrer Institut, 5232 Villigen PSI, Switzerland

    • Andreas Menzel
    • , Cameron M. Kewish
    •  & Oliver Bunk
  3. Institute for Biomechanics, ETH Zurich, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Philipp Schneider
  4. Electron Microscopy ETH Zurich (EMEZ), 8093 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Roger Wepf


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A.M., R.W., M.D., P.T., O.B., and F.P. conceived the experiment. R.W. prepared the sample. A.M., C.M.K., P.T., M.D., O.B. and F.P. carried out the experiment. P.T., M.D., C.M.K. and P.S. analysed the data. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Pierre Thibault.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    The file contains Supplementary Figure 1 and legend, legends for Supplementary Movies 1-6 and an additional reference.


  1. 1.

    Supplementary Movie 1

    This movie shows reconstructed projections: amplitude (left), raw phase (centre), unwrapped phase (right) - see Supplementary Information file for full legend.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Movie 2

    This movie shows sinograms calculated from amplitude and unwrapped phase projections - see Supplementary Information file for full legend.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Movie 3

    This movie shows volume rendering of the reconstructed bone density - see Supplementary Information file for full legend.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Movie 4

    This movie shows slices of tomographic volume perpendicular to the rotation axis - see Supplementary Information file for full legend.

  5. 5.

    Supplementary Movie 5

    This movie shows slices of tomographic volume in one of the directions parallel to the rotation axis - see Supplementary Information file for full legend.

  6. 6.

    Supplementary Movie 6

    This movie shows slices of tomographic volume parallel to the rotation axis and perpendicular to the slices in Movie 5 - see Supplementary Information file for full legend.

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