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New microchips make Superman-like x-ray vision possible on smartphone devices

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The new T-Ray chips shown next to a penneyAlthough it doesn’t use true (damaging) X-Ray technology, a microchip breakthrough from Caltech has given device developers the means to introduce T-Ray scanning in devices as small as a smartphone. T-Rays (terahertz waves) fall into a largely untapped region of the electromagnetic spectrum—between microwaves and far-infrared radiation—and can penetrate a host of materials without the damage effects of X-rays. Previously, hyper-fast microchips that could give off terahertz signals was not possible because standard transistors cannot operate at terahertz frequencies. They cannot amplify signals beyond a certain level (called the cutoff frequency). To solve the problem, the researchers harnessed the collective strength of many transistors operating in unison. If multiple elements are operated at the right times at the right frequencies, their power can be combined, boosting the strength of the collective signal.  The result – X-Ray vision in extremely small devices.

Caltech engineer Ali Hajimiri said in a news release:

“Using the same low-cost, integrated-circuit technology that’s used to make the microchips found in our cell phones and notepads today, we have made a silicon chip that can operate at nearly 300 times their speed. The new chips boast signals more than a thousand times stronger than existing approaches, and emanate terahertz signals that can be dynamically programmed to point in a specified direction, making them the world’s first integrated terahertz scanning arrays.”

Caltech explained how their new design approach differed from traditional scanning technology:

“Traditionally, people have tried to make these technologies work at very high frequencies, with large elements producing the power. Think of these as elephants. Nowadays we can make a very large number of transistors that individually are not very powerful, but when combined and working in unison, can do a lot more. If these elements are synchronized—like an army of ants—they can do everything that the elephant does and then some.”

Using the new chip, a device the size of a smartphone with the capabilities of the bulky machines typically found at airport security checkpoints, is now possible. Researchers said the technology can be used to transform ordinary smartphones into scanning devices suitable for both home users, physicians, and other users.

“Such electromagnetic waves can easily penetrate packaging materials and render image details in high resolution, and can also detect the chemical fingerprints of pharmaceutical drugs, biological weapons, or illegal drugs or explosives. The military could find terahertz-emitting microchips useful for both portable security scanners and medical scanners that soldiers can easily carry on the battlefield. Further into the future, NASA might want to develop hand-held medical scanners as part of the technology for astronauts headed to far-off destinations such as Mars.”

Sources: LiveScience, Caltech