NSF Awards UA College of Engineering $530,000 Grant for New Imaging Device to Better Track Cancer or Detect Explosives


Terahertz device, first of its kind, fills gap in cell, chemical analyses

UA works on imaging breakthrough

Michelle Monroe Arizona Daily Star | Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012 12:00 am

University of Arizona researchers are building a new kind of imaging device that could offer better ways to track cancer or detect explosives.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded scientists at the UA College of Engineering $530,000 to develop a first-of-its-kind terahertz imager for medical and other uses.

Under its Major Research Instrumentation Program, the NSF will fund the development of the terahertz spectral imager, to be housed in the University Spectroscopy and Imaging Facilities.

The UA College of Engineering and Office of the Senior Vice President for Research added an additional $238,000, which brings the total project funding so far to $768,000. Richard Ziolkowski, UA professor of electrical and computer engineering, is the project’s principal investigator.

Linda Powers, UA professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering, will focus on the biomedical possibilities of the new imaging device, specifically for breast-cancer research.

Adding cells or other objects to cancer cells to see a reaction is how some biomedical research is conducted. However, the terahertz imaging would allow researchers to see how cancer cells act without any outside influence.

Powers will focus on the difference between live breast cells and breast tumor cells.

“There is not a very good way to do that now,” Powers said.

Until about 25 years ago, scientists didn’t have enough ways to produce terahertz images enough to study them. The device the UA scientists are designing will be the first of its kind to be built.

“We had a number of sources and detectors for microwaves and optics, but we didn’t have much in between,” Ziolkowski said. “We’ve been able to develop them.”

The custom-made spectral imager will emit electromagnetic radiation in the terahertz frequency range – between microwave and optical frequencies – and analyze how the waves are absorbed and reflected by various materials, such as cell tissues and chemical compounds.

Ziolkowski said terahertz imaging could help with many applications, such as homeland security.

“Every molecule and atom has a unique spectral signature, so by being able to sample these different frequencies we can identify them,” he said. “For example, there are spectral lines for explosives that (the Department of) Homeland Security or airport security could use.”

Many of the body scanners in airports around the country use terahertz imaging, which can see through clothes safely.

The UA team is in the development phase of the research and has begun to buy the components for the device.

“If our preliminary designs work well, then we’ll do initial tests with the system by the end of Year 1,” Ziolkowski said. “In Year 2, we’d like to enhance the performance and begin to apply it to issues on campus, biological ones hopefully, and begin to transition the device from putting it together to using it on campus.”


In 2010, the National Science Foundation ranked the University of Arizona 26th in research and development expenditures among public and private universities and colleges and 18th among public universities and colleges (based on the UA’s fiscal 2009 research spending of $565 million).


Terahertz radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, just like light, radio waves and X-rays.

All these spectral frequencies can be used for imaging. For instance, astronomers use light and radio telescopes to study the radiation emitted by celestial celestial phenomena, and doctors use X-rays to see deep into body tissue.

Although terahertz radiation can penetrate many different materials, including clothing, it does not damage cell tissue and DNA like X-rays. Some body-scanning imagers in airports use terahertz waves.

University of Arizona

Michelle A. Monroe is a University of Arizona journalism student and a NASA Space Grant intern. Contact her at mmonroe@azstarnet.com

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