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Pretty soon, everything is going to be portable and handheld. It’s happened with phones and computers. Now it’s happening with X-ray machines. A University of Missouri engineering team has invented a source of X-rays that’s the size of a stick of gum.

Scott Kovaleski, PhD, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Missouri, explained the implications:

In approximately three years, we could have a prototype handheld X-ray scanner using our invention. The cell phone–sized device could improve medical services in remote and impoverished regions and reduce health care expenses everywhere.

Dr. Kovaleski was quoted in a Missouri news release. An article about the device and how it works appears in the January issue of IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science.

The device uses a lithium niobate crystal to produce more than 100,000 volts of electricity from only 10 volts of input. It takes advantage of the piezoelectric effect—the ability of some crystals to produce electricity when placed under mechanical stress. That’s also what produces a spark when you push the button on a gas grill igniter.

Dr. Kovaleski envisions a wide variety of uses for his team’s miniature X-ray generator:

  • Dental X-rays, with the X-ray source inside the mouth directing the rays outward, reducing radiation exposure to the rest of the head and neck
  • Contraband-detecting handheld scanners for use at ports and border crossings
  • Low-energy spacecraft sensors
  • Any industrial or scientific use that now relies on radioisotopes
  • A Star Trek–style tricorder

OK, Dr. Kovaleski didn’t really mention the tricorder, although every story about this breakthrough inevitably will, including this one. But he did enthuse about the safety implications of replacing radioisotopes with a radiation source that can be turned off.

“Our device is perfectly harmless until energized, and even then it causes relatively low exposures to radiation,” he said. “We have never really had the ability to design devices around a radioisotope with an on-off switch. The potential for innovation is very exciting.”

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Iconic Nobel laureate James D. Watson, PhD, says proponents of antioxidants as cancer fighters have it all wrong, particularly in regard to radiation therapy. For details, see our Facebook page.

Related seminar: Emergency Radiology


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