Researchers at the University of Warwick (Coventry, England) have invented a new type of terahertz-radiation sensor, called the Q-Eye, that detects the rise in temperature produced when electromagnetic radiation emitted by an object is absorbed by the Q-Eye sensor. It can sense such radiation down to the level of very small packets of quantum energy (a single photon).
The patented device involves a thin film of aluminum deposited on top of a silicon layer placed under strain, used to create an electronic cooling (e-cooling) process. The electrons in the silicon layer are so isolated from the silicon lattice that they become highly sensitive to incoming radiation. This e-cooling process speeds up the Q-Eye sensor's performance in comparison to conventional terahertz detectors, enabling fast imaging and material identification.
Standard silicon fabrication
Made using standard silicon processes, large numbers of detector chips containing designs matched to a particular application can easily be fabricated on large (300 mm) wafers with great uniformity, setting it apart from existing technologies.
"We were very surprised when our first very crude prototype showed such impressive speed and detection performance and our initial calculations indicated world-beating detector capability -- all this and using silicon," said Evan Parker, one of the researchers.
The device could help address the weaknesses reported earlier this month in America's airport security, where mock weapons and explosives were smuggled through airports, undetected in 95% of cases. It may also prove useful in discovering concealed goods in the retail industry or for nondestructive monitoring -- for example, quality control in drugs or food. Other applications include astronomical and climate-science observations and medical diagnosis.
Evan Parker and Terry Whall are currently working on a demonstrator of the device, having been awarded a £100,000 Smart award from Innovate UK. The work is moving out of academic research into the commercial world, and partnerships and investment are being sought. Companies involved in the personnel screening market have already expressed interest in the Q-Eye device.
Warwick Ventures, Warwick's technology transfer business, has helped the professors to create a spin-out company, Q-Eye Ltd, to develop and market the technology. Melody Stokes, Warwick Ventures' business development manager, and Phil O'Donovan, a Warwick alumnus and a Cambridge based business angel, are working with the academics to build the commercial team, secure commercial partners, and raise funding to develop the first commercial prototypes.
"The global market for devices that operate in the terahertz region is growing at around 26% year on year, so Q-Eye is well placed to support the UK's strategic lead in the sector," says Stokes. "A longer-term opportunity lies in quantum computing, set to revolutionize the way we handle and encrypt data."