New wearable terahertz scanner could revolutionise medicine

15 Nov 2016

False colour scan of human chest. Image: Wittybear/Shutterstock

A team of Japanese researchers have developed a new wearable terahertz scanning device that could open the door to a whole new range of uses in medicine, industry and security.

Over the past few years, scanners working with terahertz radiation have become increasingly more common in areas where high-resolution scanners are required, such as medical imaging and in high security areas like airports.

What makes them so ideal is that unlike x-rays and other similar technology, terahertz rays can pass through most materials without causing it any harm, thanks to it being found in between the infrared and microwave bands on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Future Human

However, until now, the technology has been stunted by the fact that existing terahertz imaging technologies can only look at flat samples. This results in the need to build bulky and expensive systems capable of rotating around an object at 360 degrees.

Now – in what could prove to be a major breakthrough – Japanese researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology have unveiled a new wearable and flexible terahertz scanner using an advanced array of carbon nanotubes (CNT).

Terahertz scanner Japan

From left: A human hand inserted into the terahertz scanning device, and the resulting scan. Image: Tokyo Institute of Technology

From medicine to industry

Publishing its findings in Nature Photonics, the research team, led by Yukio Kawano, developed the scanner by integrating 23 CNT detector elements into a single array.

CNTs have a good history of being used for such imaging processes, having previously been used for the fabrication of photodetectors that operate in the visible, infrared, and terahertz regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These new CNTs are incredibly strong, but capable of being readily bent over a wide range of angles, unlike conventional semiconductor materials that are fragile and break under stress.

Unlike previous terahertz scanners, the Japanese team successfully imaged objects of flat and curved samples, including a human hand.

This hints towards the possible future uses of the scanner for medical use to investigate potentially harmful cancer cells, but could also be used to accurately analyse pharmaceutical products and food quality control.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic