Halifax Chronicle Herald: Halifax medical engineer wins national prize for new ultrasound technology

A 27-year-old Halifax researcher is working on the next wave of therapeutic ultrasound technology, and winning awards for it.

Hugo Vihvelin has developed new electronics for ultrasound machines that can be used to treat cancerous tumours or break up gallstones, for instance. The technology is more energy efficient, allowing for the creation of smaller devices.

For his efforts, the biomedical engineer is being recognized Tuesday in Ottawa with a national innovation prize from Mitacs.

The national non-profit promotes partnerships between the private, government and academic sectors by funding research and training.

Vihvelin is receiving a $500 Mitacs Award for outstanding innovation by a master’s student. He beat out 1,300 Mitacs-funded interns for the award.

Six other researchers were also singled out for their work in other categories.

The recent Dalhousie University graduate said the ultrasound machine he’s working on will be 15 times smaller and 4.5 kilograms lighter than current technology.

“They become more portable in terms of getting the machines around the clinic, for example,” Vihvelin said in a recent interview.

The Saint John, N.B., native began developing the technology during a four-month internship earlier this year at Daxsonics Ultrasound in Halifax. His research, co-funded with a $15,000 grant from Mitacs, involved creating a new type of semiconductor for use in ultrasound.

Vihvelin developed a prototype amplifier that uses gallium nitride-based transistors, which are more efficient switching devices than silicon-based transistors. The amplifier is used to power an ultrasound transducer, which converts electrical energy into sound waves.

Because gallium nitride is up to twice as efficient as silicon, the newer machine may produce up to half as much waste heat as existing models. Besides using less electricity, the unit can be much smaller and more versatile.

“If you’re able to come up with a more efficient design, it opens up the door to more wider applications,” Vihvelin said. “ You can start to do more with the technology itself.”

As a result of his work, Daxsonics, which designs and builds various types of ultrasound technology, landed a major design contract with an undisclosed client. That, in turn, has led to a full-time position for Vihvelin, who demonstrated the technology during his internship.

The electronics now being developed could be ready for market early next year, the researcher said.

Vihvelin said gallium nitride is used in other types of electronics, although it’s still relatively new technology.

And it’s not the only potential biomedical use he’s interested in.

For his master’s thesis, Vihvelin did research on the potential use of ultrasonic power transfer in implanted devices, including cochlear implants. The technology could be an alternative to electromagnetic induction power sources, he said.

“For implanted medical electronics, there you really want to be small, for esthetic purposes,” he said.

“Whenever you have a smaller device, it’s going to be more appealing to someone who has a hearing disability, or something like that.”

Vihvelin, who has an undergraduate degree from Carleton University in Ottawa, said he was attracted to Dalhousie for graduate studies three years ago because of the biomedical research being done by Rob Adamson at Dal’s biomedical engineering department.

Adamson is also CEO of Daxsonics.

He and Jeremy Brown co-founded the startup in 2011 to commercialize ultrasound research being done at the university.

Their company is also working on high-frequency technology to produce sharper images of the body.


Joann Alberstat, Halifax Chronicle Herald