T-Rays May Reshape Airport Screening Procedures

Going through airport security can be such a hassle. Shoes, laptops, toothpastes, watches and belts all get taken off, taken out, scanned, examined, handled and repacked. But "T-rays", a completely safe form of electromagnetic radiation, may reshape airport screening procedures.

Scientists at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, along with collaborators in Turkey and Japan, have created a compact device that could lead to portable, battery-operated sources of T-rays, or terahertz radiation. By doing so, the researchers, led by Ulrich Welp of Argonne's Materials Science Division, have successfully bridged the "terahertz gap" -- scientists' name for the range of frequencies between microwaves (on the lower side) and infrared (on the higher side) of the electromagnetic spectrum.

While scientists and engineers have produced microwave radiation using conventional electric circuits for more than 50 years, Welp said, terahertz radiation could not be generated that way because of the physical limitations of the semiconducting circuit components.

"Right around 1 terahertz, you have a range of frequencies where there have never been any good solid-state sources," he added. "You can make those frequencies if you are willing to put together a whole table full of expensive equipment, but now we've been able to make a simple, compact solid-state source."

Unlike far more energetic X-rays, T-rays do not have sufficient energy to "ionize" an atom by knocking loose one of its electrons. This ionization causes the cellular damage that can lead to radiation sickness or cancer. Since T-rays are non-ionizing radiation, like radio waves or visible light, people exposed to terahertz radiation will suffer no ill effects. Furthermore, although terahertz radiation does not penetrate through metals and water, it does penetrate through many common materials, such as leather, fabric, cardboard and paper.

These qualities make terahertz devices one of the most promising new technologies for airport and national security. Unlike today's metal or X-ray detectors, which can identify only a few obviously dangerous materials, checkpoints that look instead at T-ray absorption patterns could not only detect but also identify a much wider variety of hazardous or illegal substances.

The new T-ray sources created at Argonne use high-temperature superconducting crystals grown at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. These crystals comprise stacks of so-called Josephson junctions that exhibit a unique electrical property: when an external voltage is applied, an alternating current will flow back and forth across the junctions at a frequency proportional to the strength of the voltage; this phenomenon is known as the Josephson effect.

These alternating currents then produce electromagnetic fields whose frequency is tuned by the applied voltage. Even a small voltage -- around two millivolts per junction -- can induce frequencies in the terahertz range, according to Welp.

Since each of these junctions is tiny – a human hair is roughly 10,000 times as thick – the researchers were able to stack approximately 1,000 of them on top of each other in order to generate a more powerful signal. However, even though each junction would oscillate with the same frequency, the researchers needed to find a way to make them all radiate in phase. "That's been the challenge all along," Welp said. "If one junction oscillates up while another junction oscillates down, they'll cancel each other out and you won't get anything."

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