Updated Mon, Jun 9, 2014 4:53 pm
Ohio is emerging as a global center of research in a branch of physics that’s stymied scientists for decades. It’s called Terahertz radiation, a band of light waves with potential uses that range from detecting cancer to uncovering art forgeries.
For those familiar with the original Star Trek series, this sound is unmistakable.
It’s a tricorder. Spock or McCoy could point it at anything, and instantly know its chemical makeup, see hidden objects, or diagnose diseases.
A replica tricorder sits in the office of Teraphysics founder and president Jerry Mearini. As a fan of all things retro, and a physicist and entrepreneur, Mearini was inspired by the tricorders pretend powers.
“And when we started working on Terahertz devices, the first thing that came to my mind is we’re building the world’s first Star Trek Tricorder.”
He said it may not be science-fiction much longer.
“We’re not building the tricorder itself, we’re building the engine that drives it.”
The engine is a credit-card sized, high-power Terahertz generator - technology that’s eluded scientists since the 60s.
Mearini offers to show me the clean room where it’s made…
“We’re going to go in right? We have to suit up…”
I need a hair net, booties, the works. While I’m changing, here’s a little background on Terahertz waves…
Light is a spectrum. On one end you have high-energy, high-frequency X-rays; on the other end, low frequency radio waves – like the ones your car antenna’s capturing right now. In the middle of the spectrum is visible light that you see all around you.
People have made use of practically every part of that spectrum in one way or another, except the Terahertz frequencies.
T-rays, as they’re called, fall between the heavily utilized wavelengths of infrared radiation - think night vision goggles, and microwaves, think ovens or advanced radar.
But the equally promising Terahertz range has up until now been relatively inaccessible through existing technologies. It’s been called the Terahertz gap.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a gap, but it is the spectral region that’s had the least attention, the fewest man years applied to it," said Frank De Lucia, who teaches physics at Ohio State University. He’s a pioneer in the field of Terahertz research.
“And I think there’s a lot more virgin territory to explore and a lot more virgin things to find simply because it’s not been worked on much as a function of time. And part of the reason for that is that it’s been difficult and expensive to build sources.”
And De Lucia said the practical, portable Terahertz source that Jerry Mearini is about to show me is a significant jump forward.
“And I’m going to zoom in on this thing…”
Mearini brings a small section of an intricately inscribed slab of metal into focus.
“…it’s a perfectly fabricated gold helix sitting on a very thin diamond sheet.”
The oscillator is half as wide as a human hair. Mearini said the tiny gold and diamond Terahertz generator is based on decades-old technology married to today’s nano-fabrication techniques.
“It’s a vacuum tube, but a very modern day vacuum tube. But not unlike the glass vacuum tubes that are in my guitar amp at home, just a much cooler one.”
It took Mearini and his team 10 years of long nights to get it to work, an event they quietly celebrated.
“I have a bottle of 25-year-old Macallan Scotch that I bought seven years ago, and we went out there and opened it up.”
Teraphysics announced the breakthrough last month.
“It’s a paradigm shift," said Elliott Brown, an expert in Terahertz technology at Wright State University in Dayton. “Because it would enable a whole class of new experiments that have not been conducted to date, or have not been conducted well to date, because of the lack of power in that frequency region.”
Brown sees enormous potential for the Teraphysics’ device especially in biomedical imaging. In his lab, he uses T-rays to detect skin cancer, to diagnose burns, and to analyze DNA.
At Teraphysics in Cleveland, Mearini sees the potential of his device to identify chemicals, even at a distance.
“The most interesting aspect of Terahertz is that, in that frequency range, you can unambiguously identify molecular species, because most molecular species in that frequency range exhibit what we refer to as resonant signatures.”
The Terahertz spectrum can also ‘see’ through clothing and paper packaging. It’s being tested in next generation airport scanners to detect hidden objects, or even the chemical signature of bomb material.
T-rays are being used to link computer systems through high bandwidth wireless, also in secure communications, and data transfer.
Other uses include inspection of paint and coatings, even uncovering art forgeries.
“It’s this unique area within the electro-magnetic spectrum that shows so much promise for so many applications that has really been tapped until now.”
The list of potential uses for Terahertz devices sounds like science fiction, but one Cleveland company, and researchers across Ohio, may soon make them a reality.