Hashing over optics

Reading time: 4 minutes


To better understand customer technology and applications, Ralf Noijen, systems engineer at AAE, took the “Applied optics” course at High Tech Institute. “We like to weigh in at a high level.”

In Helmond, AAE produces the C-Trap for Amsterdam-based Lumicks. With this instrument, researchers can examine, among other things, the binding of proteins on DNA strands. Understanding this molecular interaction is important to map the mechanisms of specific illnesses. The C-Trap primarily serves to research diseases such as cancer. “The main customers are universities and research institutes,” says Ralf Noijen, systems engineer at AAE.

The research requires manipulating the DNA. The strands are connected at the ends to create small polystyrene beads. These are then placed in a liquid, where they come in contact with labeled proteins. With the C-Trap, researchers can study the DNA strands with bound proteins using optical techniques.

The instrument manipulates the beads with laser beams. “You can think of it as optical tweezers,” Noijen explains. “The laser beams catch small beads of polystyrene flowing through a glass channel. Between two beads, there’s a single strand of DNA with proteins attached that have been labeled. By pulling two beads apart with optical tweezers, it’s possible to determine the strand’s stiffness and thus the influence of the bound proteins. With this system, sub-pico-Newton forces can be measured.”

For AAE’s Ralf Noijen, the “Applied optics” course was especially important to build a better connection with his customers.

Another project AAE is working on for Lumicks is the z-Movi Cell Avidity platform. “That’s actually a small microscope with a flow cell in which tumor cells can be cultured,” says Noijen. “It’s used to monitor the binding between cancer cells and immune cells. The cancer cells are put into the flow cell together with the drug of a specific immunotherapy. On top of this flow cell, a piezo element is attached that makes the fluid in the channel vibrate, creating a standing acoustic wave. The immune cells are attracted to the node in the standing wave. By increasing the amplitude, the attached immune cells release at some point, which is an indication of the strength of the binding. The z-Movi Cell Avidity platform optically measures the moment of release, giving information about the binding and thus about the effectiveness of immunotherapy.”

A healthy dose of experimentation

The big impact of optical phenomena prompted Noijen to take the “Applied optics” course at High Tech Institute, primarily as a basis for working with customers. “At AAE, we focus on manufacturability, testability and assembly. But we also like to weigh in on the development process so that we can represent all aspects well. Over the years, we’ve built up a lot of application knowledge and come to oversee more and more parts of the development. Precisely that’s why a course like this comes in handy. There are a lot of optics in the Lumicks systems. The better we understand their sensitivities, the better we can assess whether our proposals will work.” Noijen had already followed training courses with High Tech Institute before. “When I saw the description of this course, I immediately thought: hey, that fits nicely with the platforms we’re building for Lumicks.”

The training was intensive, Noijen notes, totaling thirteen half-day sessions over six months. In between, he had to do five homework assignments. That was tough, but Noijen is still positive about the experience. “You really need to make time for it in your schedule, but because it was so interesting, that wasn’t a big problem for me,” he says, laughingly.

According to Noijen, the theoretical parts of the course were well balanced with a healthy dose of experimentation.

“The course started with the basics of light – what is light anyway? From there, we went to modeling and when to apply it. What aspects are important? For example, when can you use ray tracing? I liked the build-up from basics to applications. Lighting and sensors were also covered. The last sessions went deeper into ASML’s lithography. I found that very insightful. I’ve worked at ASML so the subject matter wasn’t entirely new to me. Still, there were many things that I saw for the first time. Throughout the course, we learned about the latest in all the relevant areas. Our teachers were real experts.”

According to Noijen, the theoretical parts of the course were well balanced with a healthy dose of experimentation. “You go deep into theory, but you also get to experiment. Experiencing how everything works in practice makes the theory really stick. When you’ve had something in your hands, you learn much more easily. That’s what makes the course unique.”

Competitive advantage

For Noijen, the course was especially important for building a better connection with customers. A deeper technical knowledge allows him to better engage with company experts. “I think we can now weigh in at a higher level,” he states. “That’s really nice. You learn to speak the same language. If I’d done this course earlier, I would have been able to spar better with the optics experts in previous projects.”

“It also helps AAE,” Noijen adds. “Our primary proposition, especially for startups, is that we build their machines. If you can also contribute to the application at a high level, that gives you an additional competitive advantage. Being able to show that you understand the sensitivities inspires confidence.”

This article was written in close collaboration with High Tech Institute.