NASA Spinoff

Terahertz Tools Advance Imaging for Security, Industry

“With this technology, NASA could scan and see the precise location of wires and antennas and remove only the necessary tiles,” says Picometrix engineer Greg Stuk. “In one example, it saved the Agency hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Product Outcome

The imaging capabilities of terahertz make it useful for a wide range of applications. It can be employed as a safer, more precise security measure than X-rays in airports and other buildings, revealing concealed weapons and the contents of packages. Since numerous materials have specific spectral signatures revealed by terahertz radiation, it provides spectroscopic and other unique identification information useful for chemical analysis, pharmaceuticals, and explosives detection. Not only can terahertz see through an opaque pill bottle, for example, it can also reveal the chemical makeup of the pills inside. It can also provide high-resolution imaging down to 200 microns. The industrial possibilities of terahertz range from determining the uniformity of coating thickness to detecting hidden defects to ensure product quality.

The company now offers the T-Ray 4000 Time-Domain Terahertz System commercially. Featuring its patented fiber-pigtailed transmitter and receiver modules, the T-Ray 4000 is designed for both the research laboratory and the industrial setting. The T-Ray 4000 takes the next step beyond the NASA-inspired T-Ray QA-1000 system. While the QA-1000 is about the size of a small refrigerator, the T-Ray 4000 is an easily portable, rugged, briefcase-size system weighing only about 50 pounds. As a time-domain terahertz system, the T-Ray 4000 generates high-speed picosecond (one-trillionth of a second) duration terahertz pulses for scanned spectroscopy or imaging. These qualities, along with the patented fiber-coupled sensor heads that can scan objects of almost any size, make the T-Ray 4000 an easy-to-use tool for terahertz applications beyond the laboratory—though it is useful there as well.

“As far as having a product that you can deploy onto a manufacturing floor, this is the first of its kind,” says Duling. He credits the company’s NASA work with helping drive this industry-leading advancement.

“The rest of the industry is trying to figure out how to generate terahertz, how to detect it, how to build a complete system that can be fielded,” he says. “In part through NASA’s motivation, we’ve been able to complete that full-system integration and turn it into something we can take out into the field and use as a tool.”

“Our systems’ features now allow terahertz to access the most obscure places,” says Steve Williamson, the company’s chief technology officer. “It’s a powerful benefit to our customers.”

API’s terahertz systems can be used for thickness measurements of roofing material, paper and paper coatings, and coatings on films. They also can be employed for pharmaceutical applications like aseptic packaging and tablet production. Art conservationists from prestigious institutions like the Uffizi Gallery and the Louvre have used API systems to date paintings, look for pigment concentrations, and reveal frescos on walls that have been painted over. The technology has been even applied to examine the structure of pagodas in Japan, providing guidance for renovations. These are only a few examples of the benefits of this still developing field, says API CEO Richard Kurtz.

“Terahertz has huge market potential. We estimate there are over $200 million in opportunities for our terahertz systems over the next 7 years,” he says. To help API stay at the forefront of the terahertz industry, the company is continuing work with NASA through SBIR contracts with Glenn Research Center. The goal of this partnership is a computed axial tomography time-domain terahertz system capable of creating three-dimensional images.

“There has been great collaboration between API and NASA,” says Williamson. “NASA has helped us push the envelope.”

T-Ray®, T-Ray 2000®, and T-Ray 4000® are registered trademarks of Advanced Photonix Inc.