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New microchips are a “tool for secret agents”.

A new type of microchip developed at Caltech will allow devices such as smartphones or handheld scanners to easily scan and ‘see’ in inside objects using terahertz waves. The tiny chips (pictured above next to a penny) can be manufactured "Using the same low-cost, integrated-circuit technology that’s used to make the microchips found in our cell phones and notepads today", according to the team.

Caltech describe the development like something from a spy novel, but the technology could soon feature in smartphones as well:

A secret agent is racing against time. He knows a bomb is nearby. He rounds a corner, spots a pile of suspicious boxes in the alleyway, and pulls out his cell phone. As he scans it over the packages, their contents appear onscreen. In the nick of time, his handy smartphone application reveals an explosive device, and the agent saves the day. 

In the example pictured below, the scanner is able to identify a bullet and a knife blade hidden inside a toy.

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Research into terahertz scanners has accelerated in the last few years, as researchers look to tap into the potential to be able to generate X-Ray like images without emitting harmful radiation, and capable of being used in small handheld devices. So far terahertz scanners have been mostly large, bulky devices, or smaller devices have been too expensive to mass produce. Caltech won’t reveal the cost of the new chips but it’s likely to be only a few dollars each once mass production begins, as it uses an existing technology:

To finally realize the promise of terahertz waves, Hajimiri and Sengupta used complementary metal-oxide semiconductor, or CMOS, technology, which is commonly used to make the microchips in everyday electronic devices, to design silicon chips with fully integrated functionalities and that operate at terahertz frequencies—but fit on a fingertip.

The new chips boast signals more than a thousand times stronger than existing approaches, and emanate terahertz signals that can be dynamically programmed to point in a specified direction, making them the world’s first integrated terahertz scanning arrays.

Terahertz devices are not just limited to just scanning to see inside objects, and have a range of other practical uses. For example the technology is already used to check the structure and purity of coats of paint on critical applications such airliners and space craft. Because the waves can penetrate packaging materials, they could be used by law enforcement agents to detect chemical fingerprints of pharmaceutical drugs, biological weapons, or illegal drugs or explosives.

The chips could also lead to noninvasive cancer diagnosis, wireless communication applications, or even touchless gaming.

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