Scanning terahertz heterodyne imaging systems are now at an early stage of development. They were recently conceived as means of probing biological specimens and samples of materials to obtain information complementary to that obtainable from imaging systems that utilize other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum (e.g., visible light or x rays). Emerging applications for scanning terahertz heterodyne imaging systems include studies of terahertz contrast mechanisms in biological samples, pumpprobe excitation of phonon modes in liquids and solids, studies of effects of terahertz irradiance on functions and forms of living cells, and studies of spectral signatures indicative of binding and structures of protein molecules.

Figure 1. This Scanning Terahertz Heterodyne Imaging System incorporates an IF stabilization subsystem. This system is capable of a dynamic range of 109, a penetration depth of 5 mm, a stability of 0.1 dB, and a resolution of 0.4 mm. The image-acquisition speed — about 30 pixels per second — is limited by the speed of the translation stage.
Scanning terahertz heterodyne imaging systems using continuous-wave (CW) radiation offer the wide dynamic ranges and high signal-to-noise ratios characteristic of narrow-band high-spectral-resolution systems. As such, they also invite comparison with other terahertz imaging systems that utilize short-pulse time-domain spectroscopy (TDS), which is extremely powerful as a diagnostic technique but typically involves limitations in dynamic range and spectral resolution. One especially notable result of these differences is that in wet tissues, terahertz TDS systems are limited to penetration depths of the order of microns, while terahertz heterodyne systems can reach depths of the order of millimeters. Because the capabilities afforded by the terahertz heterodyne concept are partly complementary to those afforded by the terahertz short-pulse TDS concept, imaging systems based on these concepts could be used as complements to each other to obtain more information than could be obtained by use of either system alone.

In a basic scanning terahertz heterodyne imaging system, (see Figure 1) two far-infrared lasers generate beams denoted the local-oscillator (LO) and signal that differ in frequency by an amount,denoted the intermediate frequency (IF), chosen to suit the application. The LO beam is sent directly to a mixer as one of two inputs. The signal beam is focused to a spot on or in the specimen. After transmission through or reflection from the specimen, the beams are focused to a spot on a terahertz mixer, which extracts the IF outputs. The specimen is mounted on a translation stage, by means of which the focal spot is scanned across the specimen to build up an image.