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  • T-ray Tool Up and Running
Nov 2009
AMES, Iowa, Nov. 5, 2009 – A new $500,000 instrument recently went about its work emitting and reading high-speed pulses of silent and invisible terahertz rays.

As it did, Thomas Chiou explained how the technology would allow Iowa State University researchers to take a close and unique look at material reliability, biofuel combustion, environmental cleanup, cancer screening, biomass conversion, ionic liquids, and other science and engineering research areas.

The Terahertz Ray (or “T-ray”) Research Facility at the university’s Center for Nondestructive Evaluation (CNDE) gives researchers a state-of-the-art tool to measure and characterize materials, said Chiou, an associate scientist at the center who is managing the new facility. The instrument should produce data for the automotive, aviation, food, energy, materials, pharmaceuticals, medical, forensics, defense and homeland security fields.

Thomas Chiou of Iowa State University's Center for Nondestructive Evaluation demonstrates the new $500,000 terahertz ray instrument. (Image: Bob Elbert/Iowa State University)

“This machine represents a new frequency regime in which measurements can be made,” said R. Bruce Thompson, an Anson Marston distinguished professor in engineering, the director of the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation and leader of the collaboration that brought the instrument to Iowa State. “When you have a new way to make measurements, there are new things you can do in applied and fundamental sciences.”

Chiou said the new instrument is made possible by advances in ultrafast laser technology. It emits terahertz rays that are focused on a material or object. The rays reflect back to the receiver, and the instrument’s controlling computer records and displays the resulting data. That data can show 3-D spatial images of the object’s inner structures and also provide spectroscopic analyses of chemical and physical compositions.

The rays – they are between microwave and infrared in a relatively unexplored segment of the electromagnetic spectrum – can penetrate many common gases, nonmetal solids and some liquids, Chiou said. They are not known to cause harm to people or materials. They also show unique signatures for many materials.

Chiou said the Iowa State T-ray facility will feature two systems, one time-domain-pulsed suitable for high-speed, time-resolved imaging tasks, and the second, a frequency-domain, continuous-wave system for applications requiring finer resolution. 

He said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was the first to demonstrate the technology’s potential in nondestructive evaluation when its engineers successfully used T-rays to look for defects in the foam that insulates and protects the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tanks.

“There are a lot of applications for this technology, and we’re discovering more and more of them,” Chiou said.

And so researchers at Iowa State’s Terahertz Ray Research Facility are looking for university and industry collaborators who want to see what the new equipment can do for their projects.

“There is a lot of emphasis on innovation these days,” Thompson said. “We see this technology as a way to encourage innovative ideas. We’re excited just to try some new things.”

Iowa State acquired the instrument with the help of a $342,500 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation program.

Researchers who worked to acquire the instrument include Thompson; Chiou; Viren Amin, an associate scientist at CNDE and adjunct assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Daniel Barnard, an assistant engineer for CNDE and an assistant scientist for the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory; Stephen Holland, a group leader at CNDE and an assistant professor of aerospace engineering; David Hsu, a senior scientist for CNDE and adjunct professor of aerospace engineering; John McClelland, a scientist for the Institute for Physical Research and Technology, the Ames Laboratory and an adjunct associate professor of mechanical engineering; Terry Meyer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Say-Kee Ong, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering; and Jacob Petrich, professor and chairman of chemistry.

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An electromagnetic wave lying within the region of the frequency spectrum that is between about 1000 MHz (1 GHz) and 100,000 MHz (100 GHz). This is equivalent to the wavelength spectrum that is between one millimeter and one meter, and is also referred to as the infrared and short wave spectrum.
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...
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