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University of Michigan researchers may finally have figured out how to use terahertz rays for imaging—by converting them into ultrasound.

The terahertz band lies between microwaves and infrared light on the electromagnetic spectrum. (From left to right, longer to shorter wavelengths, the spectrum is radio waves, microwaves, terahertz waves, infrared waves, visible light waves, ultraviolet waves, X-rays, and gamma rays.) We’ve been covering efforts to use terahertz rays in medical imaging and security screening (here and here, for example). But progress has been slow.

L. Jay Guo, PhD, said he and his team at Michigan have come up with a simple solution to the problems engineers have faced in detecting terahertz waves: “We convert the T-ray light into sound.”

Dr. Guo is professor of electrical engineering and computer science, macromolecular science and engineering, and mechanical engineering. He was quoted in a university news release. An article about the research, with Dr. Guo as senior author, was published online this week in Nature Photonics.

Terahertz detectors have been too bulky, too heat sensitive, and too slow for practical use, Dr. Guo said. He said his team created something different:

Our detector is sensitive, compact, and works at room temperature, and we’ve made it using an unconventional approach.

He and his colleagues invented a transducer that converts terahertz waves into ultrasound waves. “There are many ways to detect ultrasound,” Dr. Guo said. “We transformed a difficult problem into a problem that’s already been solved.”

The response time of the detection system is a fraction of a millionth of a second, Dr. Guo said. So it should be able to provide real-time imaging. The research seems to be in the proof-of-concept stage so far. We’ll keep an eye on it.

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