Plugging the gap

The UK is ahead of the game in what promises to be one of the most exciting areas of applied technology in the coming decade: the exploitation of TeraHertz imaging.

For once Europe in general and the UK in particular rather than the US or Japan are setting the pace in what could turn into a huge new international market with major implications for society and medicine. Advances in physics and laser technology are unlocking the secrets of the TeraHertz (THz) gap, described as the ‘final frontier’ of the radio and light spectrum.

Rather like nanotechnology, but without most of the hype or any of the science fiction scaremongering, THz imaging has the potential to enable significant technical advances in many areas.

These range from early detection of skin cancer and screening for hidden explosives to a multitude of less high-profile but equally revolutionary applications in industrial processes.

The two key pillars of a strong position in any new technology are a healthy academic research base and an active programme of commercialisation. Happily for the UK, things are currently looking good on both counts.

A significant chunk of the research impetus will come from the Centre for TeraHertz Photonics at Leeds University. Currently nearing completion, the centre will combine the established expertise and resources of teams at Leeds and Cambridge University into Europe’s biggest THz research facility.

On the commercial front, the UK boasts the world’s only company building actual products based on THz technology. Cambridge-based TeraView is developing THz systems for a range of applications in the industrial, medical and security sectors. The company was one of only a handful of European businesses recently to be named as pioneers of potentially world-changing technology by the World Economic Forum.