Smartphones someday could rival Superman's X-ray vision with the ability to see through solid objects using "T-rays." The apparent superhero vision comes from a new twist on tiny, cheap microchips that can fit on an ordinary human's fingertip.
The microchips radiate terahertz waves ("T-rays") that can penetrate solid materials without the damaging effects of X-rays, according to the California Institute of Technology. A hand-held scanner could use the microchips to find a razor blade hidden inside plastic or could measure the fat content of chicken meat — abilities once reserved for huge, bulky machines more suited to airport security checkpoints.
"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," said Ali Hajimiri, a Caltech electrical engineer, in a news release.
The hyper-fast microchips can give off terahertz signals more than 1,000 times stronger than past methods, as well as direct the signals in a specific scanning direction. Their existence opens up the possibilities for shrinking homeland security scanners and cancer detecting scanners down to the size of a smartphone.
The Caltech team had to get around the fact that standard transistors — the tiny switches responsible for carrying out computing calculations — cannot operate at terahertz frequencies. The transistors simply fail to amplify signals beyond a certain level, referred to as the cutoff frequency.
To solve the problem, the researchers combined the power of many transistors working at the right frequencies to boost the overall signal. They detailed their work in the December issue of IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits.
Such T-ray scanning technology could also end up in future devices aiming to replicate the medical scanning powers of "Star Trek" tricorders. (The X Prize Foundation launched its $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize in early 2012.) The microchips may also fit well with the ongoing movement to transform ordinary smartphones into medical devices suitable for both home users and physicians.
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.
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