Prototype Terahertz Imager Promises Biochem Advances

Apr 15, 2008
Prototype Terahertz Imager Promises Biochem Advances
The NIST terahertz imaging system reveals slight temperature differences, as shown in this post-processed image. The color scale ranges from blue indicating 301 K or 28.75 degrees C, to red indicating 302.5 K or 29.35 degrees C. The image was made of the test scene shown in the photo, a room-temperature ring on top of a warmer absorber material. Quantitative analysis shows the current system can distinguish structures with dimensions as small as 4 millimeters, to be significantly improved in the future. Credit: NIST

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have demonstrated a new imaging system that detects naturally occurring terahertz radiation with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution. The technology may become a new tool chemical and biochemical analyses ranging from early tumor detection to rapid and precise identification of chemical hazards for homeland security instruments.

Terahertz radiation falls between microwaves and infrared radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum, with frequencies from about 300 million cycles per second to about 3 trillion cycles per second. Biological and chemical samples naturally emit characteristic signatures of terahertz radiation, but detecting and measuring them is a unique challenge because the signals are weak and absorbed rapidly by the atmosphere.

The NIST prototype imager, described in detail for the first time in a new paper, uses an exquisitely sensitive superconducting detector combined with microelectronics and optics technologies to operate in the terahertz range. The NIST system has its best resolution centered around a frequency of 850 gigahertz, a “transmission window” where terahertz signals can pass through the atmosphere. The system can detect temperature differences smaller than half a degree Celsius, which helps to differentiate between, for example, tumors and healthy tissue.

The heart of the system is a tiny device that measures incoming terahertz radiation by mixing it with a stable internal terahertz signal. This mixing occurs in a thin-film superconductor, which changes temperature upon the arrival of even a minute amount of radiation energy. The slight frequency difference between the two original terahertz signals produces a more easily detected microwave frequency signal.

NIST developed the device and antenna, combined with an amplifier on a chip smaller than a penny, in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts. Called a hot electon bolometer (HEB), the technology is sensitive enough to detect the weak terahertz signals naturally emitted by samples, eliminating the need to generate terahertz radiation to actively illuminate the samples. This greatly reduces complexity and minimizes safety concerns. In addition, the NIST “mixer” system delivers more information by detecting both the magnitude and phase (the point where each individual wave begins) of the radiation.

Because passively emitted signals are so weak, the current system takes about 20 minutes to make a single 40 x 40 pixel image. NIST researchers are working on an improved version that will scan faster and operate at two frequencies at once. Future systems also should be able to achieve better spatial resolution.

Citation: E. Gerecht, D. Gu, L. You and S. Yngvesson. Passive heterodyne hot electron bolometer imager operating at 850 GHz. Forthcoming in IEEE Transactions on Microwave Theory and Techniques.

Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology

Explore further: New insights found in black hole collisions

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New filter could advance terahertz data transmission

Feb 27, 2015

University of Utah engineers have discovered a new approach for designing filters capable of separating different frequencies in the terahertz spectrum, the next generation of communications bandwidth that ...

Scientists explore mash-up of vacuum tube and MOSFET

Jun 25, 2014

Thumb-size vacuum tubes that amplified signals in radio and television sets in the first half of the 20th century might seem nothing like the metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors (MOSFETs) that ...

Recommended for you

New insights found in black hole collisions

Mar 27, 2015

New research provides revelations about the most energetic event in the universe—the merging of two spinning, orbiting black holes into a much larger black hole.

X-rays probe LHC for cause of short circuit

Mar 27, 2015

The LHC has now transitioned from powering tests to the machine checkout phase. This phase involves the full-scale tests of all systems in preparation for beam. Early last Saturday morning, during the ramp-down, ...

Swimming algae offer insights into living fluid dynamics

Mar 27, 2015

None of us would be alive if sperm cells didn't know how to swim, or if the cilia in our lungs couldn't prevent fluid buildup. But we know very little about the dynamics of so-called "living fluids," those ...

Fluctuation X-ray scattering

Mar 26, 2015

In biology, materials science and the energy sciences, structural information provides important insights into the understanding of matter. The link between a structure and its properties can suggest new ...

Hydrodynamics approaches to granular matter

Mar 26, 2015

Sand, rocks, grains, salt or sugar are what physicists call granular media. A better understanding of granular media is important - particularly when mixed with water and air, as it forms the foundations of houses and off-shore ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.