The X-prize foundation, which previously awarded a prize to the first commercially viable spaceship in 2004, recently offered a prize for a working Star Trek tricorder-like device, capable of independently diagnosing 15 diseases. However, it appears that hand-held technology capable of diagnosing medical issues by simply scanning a patient may be closer than previously thought.
Full-body scanning devices already exist for airport security, prototype medical scanners and material spectroscopy systems. They use terahertz waves (T-rays), which lie in the far infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. At these extremely high frequencies, every molecule has its own unique spectroscopic signature, allowing existing devices to detect cancerous tumours, detect explosives or test integrated circuit chips without destroying them. However, these systems have several drawbacks; large amounts of energy are needed to produce T-rays, and their design requires low temperature operation. These issues make them bulky and expensive to run.
To overcome these drawbacks, researchers from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore and Imperial College London in the UK have used a new ‘nano-antenna’ technique to produce and amplify the T-rays. They shine light of different wavelengths on a pair of pointed, metal electrodes separated by 100 nanometers and placed on a semiconductor wafer. The interaction between the incident light pulses and the electric current passing between the electrodes produces a beam of T-rays with a power output that is 100 times greater than those present in current systems. The beam can also be tuned across a much larger frequency range and operates at room temperature. The lower power requirements of the new method make more portable devices possible.
The multiple improvements that this system makes to current methods for T-ray production mean that portable, high-power medical scanners may not be that far-off. So after mobile phones and tricorders, could we soon be playing our games on holodecks and eating from replicators?
Posted on Monday, 6th February, 2012