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Monday, November 26, 2007

T-Rays to replace X-Rays in security and medicine

The U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory along with collaborators in Turkey and Japan, have created a compact source of T-rays.

Until now T-rays (or terahertz radiation) could not be generated by conventional solid-state electrical circuits. Having a compact, cost-effective source of terahertz radiation will enable commercial application of T-Rays in both security and medicine.

Unlike far more energetic X-rays, T-rays do not have sufficient energy to "ionize" an atom by knocking loose one of its electrons. This ionization causes the cellular damage that can lead to radiation sickness or cancer. Since T-rays are non-ionizing radiation, like radio waves or visible light, people exposed to terahertz radiation will suffer no ill effects. Furthermore, although terahertz radiation does not penetrate through metals and water, it does penetrate through many common materials, such as leather, fabric, cardboard and paper.

These qualities make terahertz devices one of the most promising new technologies for airport and national security. Unlike today's metal or X-ray detectors, which can identify only a few obviously dangerous materials, checkpoints that look instead at T-ray absorption patterns could not only detect but also identify a much wider variety of hazardous or illegal substances.

T-rays can also penetrate the human body by almost half a centimeter, and they have already begun to enable doctors to better detect and treat certain types of cancers, especially those of the skin and breast, Welp said. Dentists could also use T-rays to image their patients' teeth.

The new T-ray sources created at Argonne use high-temperature superconducting crystals grown at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. These crystals comprise stacks of so-called Josephson junctions that exhibit a unique electrical property: when an external voltage is applied, an alternating current will flow back and forth across the junctions at a frequency proportional to the strength of the voltage; this phenomenon is known as the Josephson effect.

These alternating currents then produce electromagnetic fields whose frequency is tuned by the applied voltage. Even a small voltage – around two millivolts per junction – can induce frequencies in the terahertz range, according to Welp.

Since each of these junctions is tiny – a human hair is roughly 10,000 times as thick – the researchers were able to stack approximately 1,000 of them on top of each other in order to generate a more powerful signal. However, even though each junction would oscillate with the same frequency, the researchers needed to find a way to make them all radiate in phase.

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