Terahertz imaging system enables deeper tissue imaging without damage

An electrical engineering research team at the University of Michigan has developed a laser-powered terahertz source and detector system that offers 1,500 times more powerful systems for imaging and sensing applications, such as deep tissue imaging—without the damaging effects of x-rays.

An electrical engineering research team at the University of Michigan (U-M; Ann Arbor, MI) has developed a laser-powered terahertz source and detector system that transmits with 50 times more power and receives with 30 times more sensitivity than existing technologies. This offers 1,500 times more powerful systems for imaging and sensing applications, such as deep tissue imaging—without the damaging effects of x-rays.

Related: Terahertz pulses cause DNA damage while inducing DNA repair

Mona Jarrahi, U-M assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and colleagues accomplished their system by funneling the laser light to specifically selected locations near the device's electrode that feeds the antenna that transmits and receives the terahertz signal.

Their approach enables light to hitch a ride with free electrons on the surface of the metallic electrodes to form surface plasmon waves. By coupling the beam of light with surface plasmon waves, the researchers created a funnel to carry light into nanoscale regions near device electrodes.

The excited surface plasmon waves carry optical photons where they need to be much faster and much more efficiently, Jarrahi explains.

"When you want to generate or detect terahertz radiation, you have to convert photons to electron hole pairs and then quickly drift them to the contact electrodes of the device. Any delay in this process will reduce the device efficiency," Jarrahi says. "We designed a structure so that when photons land, most of them appear to be right next to the contact electrodes."

According to Jarrahi, the output power of the terahertz sources and the sensitivity of the terahertz detectors can be increased even further by designing optical funnels with tighter focusing capabilities.

"This is a fantastic piece of engineering," says Ted Norris, U-M professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the U-M Center for Photonic and Multiscale Nanomaterials. "It gets right to the central issue in photoconductive terahertz devices, which is collecting all the charge. Since every application benefits from increased sensitivity, for example, reduced data acquisition time or increased standoff distance, I expect this approach to be implemented widely."

Terahertz systems that are powered by lasers have been the most successful in the marketplace so far, thanks to the cost-effective, compact, and high-power lasers available today. Other researchers are using different approaches to powering terahertz systems, though.

The research team's study appears in Nature Communications; for more information, please visit http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n3/full/ncomms2638.html.

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