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THz technology holds promise for security, military apps

Posted: 29 Jul 2010     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:electromagnetic spectrum  THz technology  imaging and sensing technologies 

The new all-optical system, using terahertz (THz) wave technology, offers great potential for homeland security and military uses because it can "see through" clothing and packaging materials and can identify immediately the unique THz "fingerprints" of any hidden materials.

A major breakthrough in this has been achieved by a team of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) researchers opens the way for detecting hidden explosives, chemical or biological agents, and illegal drugs from a distance of 20m. "The potential of THz wave remote sensing has been recognised for years, but practical application has been blocked by the fact that ambient moisture interferes with wave transmission," said Xi-Cheng Zhang, director of the Centre for THz Research at Rensselaer.

Terahertz waves occupy a large segment of the electromagnetic spectrum between the infrared and microwave bands, which can provide imaging and sensing technologies not available through conventional technologies such as X-ray and microwave.

Zhang, the J. Erik Jonsson professor of Science at Rensselaer, is lead author of the paper titled "Broadband terahertz wave remote sensing using coherent manipulation of fluorescence from asymmetrically ionized gases," which describes the new system in detail. Co-authors of this paper are Rensselaer's Jingle Liu, research associate professor Jianming Dai, and professor See-Leang Chin of Quebec's University of Laval.

The "all-optical" technique for remote THz sensing uses laser-induced fluorescence, essentially focusing two laser beams together into the air to remotely create a plasma that interacts with a generated THz wave. The plasma fluorescence carries information from a target material to a detector where it is instantly compared with material spectrum in the THz "library," making possible immediate identification of a target material.

"We have shown that you can focus an 800nm laser beam and a 400nm laser beam together into the air to remotely create a plasma interacting with the THz wave, and use the plasma fluorescence to convey the information of the THz wave back to the local detector," said Zhang.

Because THz radiation transmits through almost anything that is not metal or liquid, the waves can "see" through most materials that might be used to conceal explosives or other dangerous materials, such as packaging, corrugated cardboard, clothing, shoes, backpacks, and book bags.

Unlike X-rays, THz radiation poses little or no health threat. However, the technique cannot detect materials that might be concealed in body cavities.

"Our technology would not work for owners of an African diamond mine who are interested in the system to stop workers from smuggling out diamonds by swallowing them," Zhang said.

Though most of the research has been conducted in a laboratory setting, the technology is portable and eventually could be used to check out backpacks or luggage abandoned in an airport for explosives, other dangerous materials, or for illegal drugs. On battlefields, it could detect where explosives are hidden.

The fact that each substance has its own unique THz "fingerprint" will show exactly what compound or compounds are being hidden, a capability that is expected to have multiple important and unexpected uses. In the event of a chemical spill, for instance, remote sensing could identify the composition of the toxic mix. Since sensing is remote, no individuals will be needlessly endangered.

"I think I can predict that, within a few years, the THz science and technology will become more available and ready for industrial and defence-related use," Zhang said.





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