As unbelievable as it sounds, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have created an imager chip for mobile devices which would turn an ordinary cell phone into something which can see through walls, wood, plastics, paper, skin and other objects.
The research team connected two separate advances in science: the mostly untapped terahertz frequency range of the electromagnetic spectrum and cutting edge microchip technology.
For those who are unfamiliar or need a refresher, the electromagnetic spectrum makes up all wavelengths of electromagnetic energy from visible light to radio waves to microwaves to infrared to ultraviolet and everything in between.
Most consumer devices have yet to leverage the terahertz band, which means that this could be truly revolutionary technology, although some like myself might think that this revolution is not necessarily all that wonderful.
“We’ve created approaches that open a previously untapped portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for consumer use and life-saving medical applications,” said Dr. Kenneth O, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Dallas as well as the director of the Texas Analog Center of Excellence.
“The terahertz range is full of unlimited potential that could benefit us all,” he added, although I’m not quite sure how allowing cell phones to see through walls and thus erase what tiny shred of privacy we have left would benefit us all.
This technology would likely not even be as expensive as one might expect. This is because the new approach would allow images to be created with THz-range signals without the need for several lenses or other expensive equipment within the device.
This would not only reduce cost, but also size, making the technology something which we could realistically see in mobile phones in the future.
The University of Texas at Dallas press release notes that the techniques involved in the manufacturing of the microchip involved would also allow it to be applied to consumer devices.
Chips utilizing the Complimentary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) technology, which forms the basis of a great deal of consumer electronics like personal computers, mobile devices, high definition televisions, game consoles, etc. would make this technology even more affordable.
“CMOS is affordable and can be used to make lots of chips,” Dr. O said. “The combination of CMOS and terahertz means you could put this chip and receiver on the back of a cell phone, turning it into a device carried in your pocket that can see through objects.”
Thankfully, Dr. O seems to be, at least to a certain extent, concerned with privacy. This is evidenced by his team focusing on uses in distances of four inches or less, although this does not mean, by any means, that this technology could not be used at a greater distance when it is undoubtedly used by the government and military.
Some of the more innocuous potential applications could range from turning an ordinary phone into a stud finder or document authentication platform or even a counterfeit currency detector.
Manufacturing companies could potentially use it in process control and with more communication channels available in the THz range compared to the range currently used for wireless communications, data could be more rapidly transferred than the currently utilized frequency ranges allow.
There are even potential applications in healthcare fields, according to researchers.
It is possible that this type of imaging technology could be used to detect cancerous tumors, breath analysis for disease diagnosis and even air toxicity monitoring applications.
“There are all kinds of things you could be able to do that we just haven’t yet thought about,” said Dr. O, who also currently holds the Texas Instruments Distinguished Chair.
The research team’s next move will be to create an entire functioning imaging system which is based on the THz frequency range leveraging CMOS chip technology.
TxACE is funded by the Semiconducter Research Corporation (SRC), Texas Instruments Inc., and the state of Texas through the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the University of Texas system and the University of Texas at Dallas.
While there are indeed some very promising, positive applications for this type of technology, there are also some grave concerns in terms of privacy, which is a commodity we are quickly losing in today’s Big Brother society.