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Terahertz imaging chip paves way for versatile sensors

Posted: 27 Dec 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:microchips? terahertz? sensors? electromagnetic waves?

A duo of electrical engineers working at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have created tiny silicon microchips capable of generating and radiating terahertz waves and can penetrate a host of materials without the ionizing damage of X-rays.

When incorporated into handheld devices, the new microchips could enable a broad range of applications in fields ranging from homeland security to wireless communications to healthcare and even touchless gaming. In the future, the technology may lead to noninvasive cancer diagnosis, among other applications.

"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," says Ali Hajimiri, the Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering at Caltech. "These chips will enable a new generation of extremely versatile sensors."

Researchers have long touted the potential of the terahertz frequency range, from 0.3 to 3THz, for scanning and imaging. 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. However, most existing terahertz systems involve bulky and expensive laser setups that sometimes require exceptionally low temperatures. The potential of terahertz imaging and scanning has gone untapped because of the lack of compact, low-cost technology that can operate in the frequency range.

To finally realise the promise of terahertz waves, Hajimiri and Sengupta used complementary metal-oxide semiconductor, or CMOS, technology, which is commonly used to make the microchips in everyday electronic devices, to design silicon chips with fully integrated functionalities and that operate at terahertz frequenciesbut fit on a fingertip.


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