Friday, October 5, 2012

The Truth About Terahertz

In Chapter 14 of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I discuss Terahertz Radiation.
For many years, there were no good sources or sensitive detectors for radiation between microwaves and the near infrared (0.1-100 THz; 1 THz = 1012 Hz). Developments in optoelectronics have solved both problems, and many investigators are exploring possible medical uses of THz radiation (“T rays”). Classical electromagnetic wave theory is needed to describe the interactions, and polarization (the orientation of the E vector of the propagating wave) is often important. The high attenuation of water to this frequency range means that studies are restricted to the skin or surface of organs such as the esophagus that can be examined endoscopically. Reviews are provided by Smye et al. (2001), Fitzgerald et al. (2002), and Zhang (2002).
(By the way, apologies to Dr. N. N. Zinovev, a coauthor on the Fitzgerald et al. paper, whose last name is spelled incorrectly in our book.) 

In the September 2012 issue of the magazine IEEE Spectrum, Carter Armstrong (a vice president of engineering at L-3 Communications, in San Francisco) reviews some of the challenges facing the development of Terahertz radiation. His article “The Truth About Terahertz” begins
Wirelessly transfer huge files in the blink of an eye! Detect bombs, poison gas clouds, and concealed weapons from afar! Peer through walls with T-ray vision! You can do it all with terahertz technology—or so you might believe after perusing popular accounts of the subject.

The truth is a bit more nuanced. The terahertz regime is that promising yet vexing slice of the electromagnetic spectrum that lies between the microwave and the optical, corresponding to frequencies of about 300 billion hertz to 10 trillion hertz (or if you prefer, wavelengths of 1 millimeter down to 30 micrometers). This radiation does have some uniquely attractive qualities: For example, it can yield extremely high-resolution images and move vast amounts of data quickly. And yet it is nonionizing, meaning its photons are not energetic enough to knock electrons off atoms and molecules in human tissue, which could trigger harmful chemical reactions. The waves also stimulate molecular and electronic motions in many materials—reflecting off some, propagating through others, and being absorbed by the rest. These features have been exploited in laboratory demonstrations to identify explosives, reveal hidden weapons, check for defects in tiles on the space shuttle, and screen for skin cancer and tooth decay.

But the goal of turning such laboratory phenomena into real-world applications has proved elusive. Legions of researchers have struggled with that challenge for decades.
Armstrong then explores the reasons for these struggles. The large attenuation coefficient of T-rays places severe limitations on imaging applications. He then turns specifically to medical imaging.
Before leaving the subject of imaging, let me add one last thought on terahertz for medical imaging. Some of the more creative potential uses I’ve heard include brain imaging, tumor detection, and full-body scanning that would yield much more detailed pictures than any existing technology and yet be completely safe. But the reality once again falls short of the dream. Frank De Lucia, a physicist at Ohio State University, in Columbus, has pointed out that a terahertz signal will decrease in power to 0.0000002 percent of its original strength after traveling just 1 mm in saline solution, which is a good approximation for body tissue. (Interestingly, the dielectric properties of water, not its conductive ones, are what causes water to absorb terahertz frequencies; in fact, you exploit dielectric heating, albeit at lower frequencies, whenever you zap food in your microwave oven.) For now at least, terahertz medical devices will be useful only for surface imaging of things like skin cancer and tooth decay and laboratory tests on thin tissue samples.
Following a detailed review of terahertz sources, Armstrong finishes on a slightly more optimistic note.
There is still a great deal that we don’t know about working at terahertz frequencies. I do think we should keep vigorously pursuing the basic science and technology. For starters, we need to develop accurate and robust computational models for analyzing device design and operation at terahertz frequencies. Such models will be key to future advances in the field. We also need a better understanding of material properties at terahertz frequencies, as well as general terahertz phenomenology.

Ultimately, we may need to apply out-of-the-box thinking to create designs and approaches that marry new device physics with unconventional techniques. In other areas of electronics, we’ve overcome enormous challenges and beat improbable odds, and countless past predictions have been subsequently shattered by continued technological evolution. Of course, as with any emerging pursuit, Darwinian selection will have its say on the ultimate survivors.
Terahertz radiation is such a big field that one year ago the IEEE introduced a new journal: IEEE Transactions on Terahertz Science and Technology. In the inaugural issue, Taylor et al. examine “THz Medical Imaging.”


  1. Any (bio)physical processes you know of have THz spectra?

  2. Terahertz technologies are changing and some ideas that were impossible in the past become possible.