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  • T-rays Reveal Hidden Art
Feb 2008
ANN ARBOR, Mich., Feb. 4, 2008 -- A device that combines lasers and electronics uses pulses of terahertz radiation -- T-rays -- to reveal depth and detail in a way x-rays cannot, and could let art historians see murals hidden beneath coats of plaster or paint in centuries-old buildings.

T-rays could also illuminate penciled sketches under paintings on canvas without harming the artwork, researchers from the University of Michigan (U-M) said. Current methods of imaging underdrawings can't detect certain art materials such as graphite or sanguine, a red chalk that some of the masters are believed to have used.

The team of researchers, which includes scientists at the Louvre Museum, Picometrix LLC and U-M, used terahertz imaging to detect colored paints and a graphite drawing of a butterfly through 4 mm of plaster. They believe their technique is capable of seeing even deeper. A paper on the research is published in the February edition of Optics Communications.
A mural recently discovered behind five layers of plaster at the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Vif, France. A research team that includes scientists from the University of Michigan will use a terahertz imaging device to help archaeologists examine the mural next month. (Photos courtesy University of Michigan)
In March, the scientists will take their equipment to Vif, France, to help archaeologists examine a mural they discovered recently behind five layers of plaster in a church that dates to the 12th century, the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste.

"It's ideal that the method of evaluation for historical artifacts such as frescoes and mural paintings, which are typically an inherent part of a building's infrastructure, be nondestructive, noninvasive, precise and applicable on site. Current technologies may satisfy one or more of these requirements, but we believe our new technique can satisfy all of them," said paper co-author John Whitaker, a research scientist and adjunct professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at U-M.

Terahertz imaging can reveal depth and detail that other techniques cannot, Whitaker said. And it's not potentially harmful like x-ray imaging because terahertz radiation is nonionizing. Its rays don't have enough energy to knock electrons off atoms, forming charged particles and causing damage, like x-rays do.

While terahertz radiation is everywhere in nature, it has been difficult to produce in a lab because it falls between the capabilities of electronic devices and lasers.

"Terahertz is a strange range in the electromagnetic spectrum because it's quasi-optical. It is light, but it isn't," said Bianca Jackson, first author of the paper who is a doctoral student in applied physics.

The device, which combines electronics and lasers, was developed by Picometrix of Ann Arbor. It's called the T-Ray system, and it uses pulses from an ultrafast laser to excite a semiconductor antenna, which in turn emits pulses of terahertz radiation.

The rays permeate the plaster, and some reflect back when there is a change in the material. When they bounce back and how much energy they retain depends on the material they hit. Different colors of paint, or the presence of graphite, for example, cause telltale differences in the amount of energy in the returning waves. A receiver measures this energy, and the scientists can use the data to produce an image of what lies beneath, Jackson said.

A similar device made by Picometrix is used routinely to examine the foam on the space shuttle's fuel tanks for underlying damage, said Irl Duling, Picometrix director of terahertz business development and an author of the paper, which discusses a new application, rather than a new device (See Companies Aid Space Shuttle Safety).
Detail of one of the sections of a recently uncovered mural at a 12th century church in Vif, France.

Gèrard Mourou, a U-M electrical engineering professor emeritus, said he believes this technique will be especially useful in Europe, where historic regime changes often resulted in artworks being plastered or painted over. This was common in places of worship, some of which switched from churches to mosques and vice versa over the centuries.

"In France alone, you have 100,000 churches," Mourou said. "In many of these places, we know there is something hidden. It has already been written about. This is a quick way to find it."

And Leonardo DaVinci's "The Battle of Anghiari," for example, is believed to lurk beneath other frescos at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, Mourou said.

The paper is called "Terahertz Imaging for Non-destructive Evaluation of Mural Paintings." Its other authors are: Mourou, Steven Williamson of Picometrix; Marie Mourou, a U-M undergraduate student; and Michel Menu of the Center for Research and Restoration at The Louvre Museum.

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That branch of science involved in the study and utilization of the motion, emissions and behaviors of currents of electrical energy flowing through gases, vacuums, semiconductors and conductors, not to be confused with electrics, which deals primarily with the conduction of large currents of electricity through metals.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
The emission and/or propagation of energy through space or through a medium in the form of either waves or corpuscular emission.
terahertz radiation
Electromagnetic radiation with frequencies between 300 GHz and 10 THz, and existing between regions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are typically classified as the far-infrared and microwave regions. Because terahertz waves have the ability to penetrate some solid materials, they have the potential for applications in medicine and surveillance.
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