Monday, 22 September 2014
masthead+quote+image
Advanced search

Radiation method could lead to Star Trek-style 'tricorders'

Handheld medical scanners reminiscent of Star Trek ’tricorders’ could be a step closer thanks to a new way of producing terahertz radiation.

Researchers from the UK and Singapore have used nanotechnology to create stronger directional beams of the terahertz ’T-rays’ that are used in full-body security scanners, and produce them at room temperature.

The scientists from Imperial College London and Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) say this could allow future T-ray systems to be smaller, cheaper, more portable and easier to operate than existing devices.

‘The fact that we have enhanced the power by more than a factor of 100 means better energy efficiency [and] quicker scanning speed for imaging or screening applications,’ Imperial’s Prof Stefan Maier told The Engineer.

Nanoscale antenna

T-rays are electromagnetic waves from the far-infrared part of the spectrum that are used in security scanners for detecting explosives or drugs and spectroscopy systems for materials analysis and non-destructive testing of microchips.

They can also detect biological phenomena such as increased blood flow around tumourous growths and identify molecules in living DNA.

But current methods for producing T-rays require very low temperatures and high energy consumption, and existing medical T-ray imaging devices have only low output power and are expensive.

t-rays

Nano-scale electrodes form an antenna that amplifies the terahertz radiation.

The new technique involves creating a nanoscale antenna that amplifies the T-rays as they are generated. This is formed from two metal electrodes separated by a 100nm gap on a semiconductor wafer that uses light pulses and a powerful current to create the radiation.

Maier said: ‘We use electrodes with a nanoscale gap between them in order to enhance both the pumping visible light pulses that generate the terahertz radiation and the terahertz radiation emerging from that gap. Previously, electrodes with a much bigger gap have been used.’

Electron beam lithography

Fabricating the antenna requires a technique called electron beam lithography in order to make the very small gaps in the electrodes, and the scientists would need to find a way to mass-produce them. Maier said this could be done with nano-imprint lithography.

He added that other applications for the more powerful T-rays could include scanning for biomaterials such as plastic explosives and disease agents, and other medical scanning such as screening melanoma-suspicious skin moles.

Various technologies are being researched that could lead to the development of a tricorder-like device that could perform everything from the spectroscopic analysis of airborne molecules to microfluidic DNA sequencing.

The X Prize Foundation, with sponsorship from Qualcomm, is offering $10m (£6.5m) to the creators of a handheld device that can best diagnose a set of diseases.

The research was led by scientists from A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), and Imperial College London, and published in the journal Nature Photonics.

It was funded by A*STAR’s Metamaterials Programme and the THz Programme, as well as the Leverhume Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK.


Readers' comments (1)

  • This sort of scientific developement is moving at such a rate of pace and to even think of hand held scanning devices that will not only cut down on waiting times in hospitals X ray departments but will also save lives after accidents in diagnosing internal injuries.
    Well worth the investment and I look forward to seeing this sort of product in the near future.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

Mandatory
Mandatory
Mandatory
Mandatory

My saved stories (Empty)

You have no saved stories

Save this article