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Compact radiation source could put an X-ray scanner in your pocket


January 8, 2013

The compact radiation source developed by Kovaleski's team at the University of Missouri (Photo: Peter Norgard, University of Missouri)

The compact radiation source developed by Kovaleski's team at the University of Missouri (Photo: Peter Norgard, University of Missouri)

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While we’ve seen developments that could see T-ray spectrometers featuring in a future handheld tricorder-like device, good ol’ X-rays could also get a guernsey thanks to an engineering team from the University of Missouri. The team has invented an accelerator about the size of a stick of gum that can create X-rays and other forms of radiation, opening up the possibility of cheap and portable X-ray scanners.

As well as being small, the device requires just a fraction of the electricity used by current X-ray machines. Using a crystal made from lithium niobate, it uses the piezoelectric effect to amplify an electrical input of 10 volts to produce more than 100,000 volts of electricity. This could allow the crystal to be powered by batteries in a handheld device.

“Currently, X-ray machines are huge and require tremendous amounts of electricity,” said Scott Kovaleski, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at MU. “In approximately three years, we could have a prototype hand-held X-ray scanner using our invention. The cell-phone-sized device could improve medical services in remote and impoverished regions and reduce health care expenses everywhere.”

In addition to potentially putting an X-ray scanner in every doctor’s office, Kovaleski says the technology has a wide variety of potential applications. It could improve border security by allowing more widespread searching of cargo at border crossings, while the size and low energy requirements of the technology would also be perfect for inclusion on future interplanetary probes, like the Curiosity rover.

Closer to home, Kovaleski says the device could also allow dentists to take X-rays from the inside of the mouth so that the rays are shooting outward, rather than exposing the patient’s head to harmful radiation.

Because the accelerator is able to create forms of radiation other than X-rays, it also has the potential to replace the radioisotopes used in drilling for oil and in other industrial and scientific operations. Additionally, the device offers a safer source of radiation as it can be turned off in the event of an emergency.

“Our device is perfectly harmless until energized, and even then it causes relatively low exposures to radiation,” said Kovaleski. “We have never really had the ability to design devices around a radioisotope with an on-off switch. The potential for innovation is very exciting.”

The technology is detailed in a paper published in the journal IEEE Transaction on Plasma Science.

Source: University of Missouri

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Certainly very cool, but I do wonder about the potential for terrorists to get a few of these and wander around irradiating people.


Cool technology, but I do have to wonder about the cost when it comes to market. It's certainly not the first portable x-ray device though, Vidisco has been making portable x-rays for years for NDT, security, and airlines. They fit in a backpack, hand held, and run on batteries. Pretty cool tech, you should cover them on Gizmag Darren. http://www.vidisco.com

George Giles

Great idea. Reminds me of the episode of 'Bones' where the power was out and they used sticky tape to make X-rays. This moves us one step closer to a real Star Trek Tricoder.


X-ray sources require lots of power for a reason. For most applications you need a "bright" source. In most cases you can easily decrease the current flowing between the anode and cathode, which decreases the power consumption. That is not a problem. The problem is, that as you decrease electrical power input, the intensity of the radiation generated by the source also decreases, and recording an image or a spectrum takes proportionally longer. During that time the patient might move, blurring the image. Usually you are better off with a high intensity source, that you turn on only for a short time. (The total dose of radiation, and the amount of electrical energy consumed by the device is the same...)

So don't expect a small handheld device with which you can make "x-ray photos". (Low power means longer measurement times...) Nor will this device decrease the dose what you get during medical examinations. (That is determined mainly by the detectors, which require a certain dose to form a proper image.)

In most cases the question is not "How to decrease electrical power input?", rather "How to increase it without melting the anode?". Without new, drastically more efficient detectors, the possible applications for this device are very limited. You need to find a niche where measurement time is not a priority, but the weight of the device is. Screening at airports or at doctor's offices are not such applications. Space probes, and small, portable XRF spectrometers might be the ones to utilize this invention.


@mooseman, so you mean that the T´s should follow the same person for a year or so hoping they end up with some skin cancer? You do realise that there is rather few T´s in the world. Stop listening to your lying government and media. No mater where you are from, most lie about how many there is, they just use it to scare you into submission helping the T´s. But this devise is very cool :D

Toffe Kaal

Thallium doped cesium iodide detectors at nanoscale dimensions and IBM's photon based computing might combine to permit a CT scan capability in a swallowable capsule for a system on a chip xray scanner. Otherwise cypher is correct.

Marvin Keith


That's a nice essay, but the problem is that you're thinking of this in terms of the old technology you know. There isn't enough information in the abstract to really know, but it seems like this generates electron beams in a fundamentally different way, without exposed cathodes and anodes. Sort of like the difference between vacuum tubes and semiconductor devices. It would be foolish to dismiss solid state devices by basing assumptions on what you know about vacuum tubes.


The bad thing about having a pocket x-ray scanner is that you might accidentally leave it switched on while it's in your pocket and fry your genitals to a crisp.



Generating an electron beam is not such a difficult thing, and it does not consume to much power either. (A few watts from the hundreds or thousands of watts, consumed by the source...) The rest is used to accelerate the electrons to high energies. The real problem is, that converting the energy carried by the electrons to X-rays is very inefficient. In most cases the electron beam is directed to a metal surface, and it produces bremsstrahlungh or characteristic X-rays. The problem is that only about 1% of the energy of the electrons is transformed to X-rays. The rest is turned into heat. And in this respect this new source is not different from the old ones. The article claims that X-rays were produced by bremsstrahlung when the electron beam struck the stainless steel wall of the vacuum chamber. As it uses the same effect to produce X-rays as traditional sources, there is no reason to believe this is more efficient than the old ones.

And it is not a solid state device either. Small (1 mm long, 0.1 mm in diameter) platinum-iridium wires were glued to the end of the piezoelectric crystal. They served as cathodes. The anode was the wall of the vacuum chamber. Between the two electrodes the electrons flew in vacuum. I admit, that 1E-3 torr (which was enough for this device to operate) is much higher than the pressures required by traditional X-ray sources, and this might be an advantage, but this is still a vacuum tube, and not a solid state device.

As I see, the novelty of this device is the way it produces the high voltage, which is required to accelerate the electrons. Using a piezoelectric crystal instead of traditional electronics is a good idea, and it makes it possible to integrate the high voltage supply into the vacuum chamber. But still: it generates X-rays in pretty much the same way as traditional X-ray sources.

@nutcase You don't need an X-ray source for that. Your phone will do it for you... :(


Cypher is correct, this is a novel way of producing HV not x-rays. Xoft is building 50 kVp x-ray tubes 2 mm in diameter with 15 watts of power for treating breast cancer among other things. Other companies are making miniature x-ray sources for isotope substitution in hand held lead paint detectors. The laws concerning radiation safety will limit what can be made and sold from a practical standpoint; once you exceed 50 kVp then additional regulations kick in. A Gy is a Gy is a Gy - meaning that you need the dose you need to do the job, either imaging or therapeutic. How you produce it is not the issue but rather that you have enough dose, directed at the right place for an appropriate time for the required application.

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