Those of us who envy Superman for his X-ray vision may soon get that ability - on our cell phones. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have reported a new approach to harnessing the potential of the terahertz band in portable devices.

The terahertz band sits between micro waves and infrared on the electromagnetic spectrum and can be used to see through objects such as walls, wood, plastics and paper.

The terahertz wavelength range hasn't been widely accessible for consumer devices until recently. New availability creates new applications however - earlier this year, we reported on how terahertz (or T-Ray) technology could make Star Trek-style tricorders a reality.

"We've created approaches that open a previously untapped portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for consumer use and life-saving medical applications," said Dr. Kenneth O, professor of electrical engineering at University of Texas at Dallas and director of the Texas Analog Center of Excellence, in a statement.

The University of Texas' research centers around the use of CMOS (Complimentary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) technology to create a terahertz microchip. The approach also by-passes the need to use several lenses inside a device.

"CMOS is affordable and can be used to make lots of chips," Dr. O said on the University of Texas at Dallas website. "The combination of CMOS and terahertz means you could put this chip and receiver in the back of a cell phone, turning it into a device carried in your pocket that can see through objects."

Dr. Kenneth O (left) worked with a team including Dae Yeon Kim

Images produced using this technology can replace X-rays with a less expensive method that might even reduce the risks of exposure previously experienced with X-rays. The technology might also be used to view more than just bones and related structures - researchers at the University of Texas say it can be used for imaging to detect cancer tumors, diagnosing disease through breath analysis, and monitoring air toxicity.

Because devices with "T-ray" imaging capabilities have the ability to see through most solid, opaque objects, this new technology has applications far beyond the medical field.

"Authentication of documents and currencies is the first application we are thinking of. You can also use this to see through walls to image wires and others," said Dr. O. "You could also use this inspect inside of items such as vase you are purchasing for defects that cannot be seen by eyes."

Dr. O said developing medical uses will take more time.

Terahertz imaging has its limitations. While it can penetrate fog and clouds, challenges occur when trying to penetrate metal and water. The Earth's atmosphere also absorbs terahertz radiation, limiting the range on which a terahertz imaging device can operate.

For now, that's not a big concern. The team plans to limit its uses to devices with a range of less than four inches (10 cm) to address privacy concerns. A device that can see through clothing, walls and other structures is after all, more invasive than the Backscatter scanners used at many airports.

Source: University of Texas at Dallas