Big step towards Tricorder medical scanner

Star Trek-style Tricorder medical scanners are a step closer to reality, say scientists, following the discovery of a new way of creating electromagnetic Terahertz waves – as currently used in full-body security scanners.

Researchers from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) in Singapore and the UK’s Imperial College London say they’ve made made these T-rays into a much stronger directional beam than was previously thought possible, and at room-temperature conditions.

It means future T-ray systems can be smaller, easier to operate and much cheaper than current devices, they say.

T-rays are already in use in airport security scanners and in spectroscopy systems for materials analysis. But they’re also suitable for medical scanning devices, as they can sense molecules such as those present in cancerous tumours and living DNA, as every molecule has its unique signature in the THz range.

They can also be used to detect explosives or drugs, for gas pollution monitoring or non-destructive testing of semiconductor integrated circuit chips.

Current T-ray imaging devices are very expensive and can only operate at a low output power, as it’s an energy-intensive process that needs to take place at very low temperatures.

Now, though, the team’s shown that it’s possible to produce a strong T-ray beam by shining light of differing wavelengths on a pair of electrodes.

The structure of the tip-to-tip nano-sized gap electrode greatly enhances the THz field, they say, acting as a nano-antenna to amplify the wave, and giving more power and higher resolution.

The discovery’s rather good timing for the team, coming just as the X PRIZE Foundation and Qualcomm announce a $10 million prize for a truly effective Tricorder device. It’s due to be awarded in July 2015.