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Rensselaer Researchers Seeing Farther and Faster with Terahertz (THz) Imaging

January 14, 2002

Rensselaer Researchers Seeing Farther and Faster with Terahertz (THz) Imaging

Troy, N.Y. — Xi-Cheng Zhang, the J. Erik Jonsson ’22 Distinguished Professor of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a team of researchers are the first to image biological tissue using single pulses of terahertz (THz or T-ray) radiation. This single-pulse approach will improve diagnostic time from hours or days, down to minutes or seconds. The technique could one day lead to computerized medical diagnoses right in the physician’s office.

Zhang and his colleagues combined T-rays — those that are within the far-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum — with a new technique that delivers single-picosecond-long “blasts” or “chirped pulses” of light. Using a single pulse of THz radiation that is only a few picoseconds long allows for better and faster imaging results in biological tissue.

The unique properties of THz radiation allow it to “see” farther, and in more detail, than imaging methods such as X-rays, ultrasound, and radar. For example, T-rays have been demonstrated to effectively image skin burn severity, tooth cavities, and skin and breast cancer.

As an alternative method of mammography, for example, T-rays can detect breast cancer and “see” underground toxins better than other technologies, such as X-rays. T-rays could also greatly enhance the mapping of DNA and RNA.

“Our idea is to fully automate analysis of these images,” says Zhang. “One day it could lead to diagnostic tools based on the THz response.”

In combination with the chirped probe, the technique offers highly detailed biological images (even if a patient moves during the procedure). The images can be layered and mapped in color to produce high-resolution images for biomedical applications.

A picture of a skin cancer tumor, for example, would be pieced together using multiple T-ray images at different angles. This method creates a biologically accurate 3-D picture that gives a researcher or diagnostician a better understanding of the disease and how far it has spread.

Important industrial applications are foreseen in the package inspection and manufacturing quality control. Zhang has received more than $7 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, Army Research Office, and Department of Energy.

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Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,900 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.