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PLoS One. 2018 Dec 20;13(12):e0208820. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0208820. eCollection 2018.

Preliminary X-ray CT investigation to link Hounsfield unit measurements with the International System of Units (SI).

Author information

Quantum Measurement Division, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Maryland, United States of America.
Software and Systems Division, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Boulder, Colorado, United States of America.
Professional Research Experience Program, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, United States of America.
Applied Chemicals and Materials Division, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Boulder, Colorado, United States of America.



This paper lays the groundwork for linking Hounsfield unit measurements to the International System of Units (SI), ultimately enabling traceable measurements across X-ray CT (XCT) machines. We do this by characterizing a material basis that may be used in XCT reconstruction giving linear combinations of concentrations of chemical elements (in the SI units of mol/m3) which may be observed at each voxel. By implication, linear combinations not in the set are not observable.


We formulated a model for our material basis with a set of measurements of elemental powders at four tube voltages, 80 kV, 100 kV, 120 kV, and 140 kV, on a medical XCT. The samples included 30 small plastic bottles of powders containing various compounds spanning the atomic numbers up to 20, and a bottle of water and one of air. Using the chemical formulas and measured masses, we formed a matrix giving the number of Hounsfield units per (mole per cubic meter) at each tube voltage for each of 13 chemical elements. We defined a corresponding matrix in units we call molar Hounsfield unit (HU) potency, the difference in HU values that an added mole per cubic meter in a given voxel would add to the measured HU value. We built a matrix of molar potencies for each chemical element and tube voltage and performed a singular value decomposition (SVD) on these to formulate our material basis. We determined that the dimension of this basis is two. We then compared measurements in this material space with theoretical measurements, combining XCOM cross section data with the tungsten anode spectral model using interpolating cubic splines (TASMICS), a one-parameter filter, and a simple detector model, creating a matrix similar to our experimental matrix for the first 20 chemical elements. Finally, we compared the model predictions to Hounsfield unit measurements on three XCT calibration phantoms taken from the literature.


We predict the experimental HU potency values derived from our scans of chemical elements with our theoretical model built from XCOM data. The singular values and singular vectors of the model and powder measurements are in substantial agreement. Application of the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC) shows that exactly two singular values and singular vectors describe the results over four tube voltages. We give a good account of the HU values from the literature, measured for the calibration phantoms at several tube voltages for several commercial instruments, compared with our theoretical model without introducing additional parameters.


We have developed a two-dimensional material basis that specifies the degree to which individual elements in compounds effect the HU values in XCT images of samples with elements up to atomic number Z = 20. We show that two dimensions is sufficient given the contrast and noise in our experiment. The linear combination of concentrations of elements that can be observed using a medical XCT have been characterized, providing a material basis for use in dual-energy reconstruction. This approach provides groundwork for improved reconstruction and for the link of Hounsfield units to the SI.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

Conflict of interest statement

The Corresponding Author, ZHL, discloses the following patents on which they are a co-inventor: US Patent (10,073,026) "Optical Particle Sorter," US Patent 7,967,507 "A Dimensional Reference for Tomography," US Patent 7,163,649 "Minimizing Spatial-Dispersion-Induced Birefringence" and US Patent 6,389,101 "Parallel X-ray Nanotomography." The rights to these patents have been assigned to the United States Government. The other authors report that they have read the PLOS ONE financial disclosure rules and have nothing to disclose with the following exception: Author ADH took a job with Ball Aerospace after the conclusion of this project. Author ADH had been a postdoctoral fellow during his association with us. The other authors have declared that no competing interests exist. This does not alter our adherence to all the PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.

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