Sci-fi shows and superhero films are full of gadgets and beings that have the power to remotely scan their environment for hidden things. For us mere mortals this superability may sound unachievable, but now Stanford engineers are working to develop a safe and portable way to detect concealed objects by scanning with microwaves and ultrasound.
As this Stanford Report story explains, the idea began with a challenge posed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: Design a way to detect buried plastic explosives from a safe distance without touching the surface of the ground.
A team of electrical engineers led by assistant professor Amin Arbabian, PhD, and research professor Pierre Khuri-Yakub, PhD, took up the challenge, paying homage to the scanning device made popular by sci-fi show Star Trek in the process. They created a tricorder-like device that senses the ultrasonic waves created by objects as they expand and contract when warmed by electromagnetic energy (e.g., light and microwaves).
Here’s the really interesting part: Because everything expands and contracts when heated — but not at identical rates — this scanning tool could have medical applications as well. For example, blood vessels that sprout from cancerous tumors absorb heat differently than surrounding tissue. So, blood vessels radiating from tumors could appear as “ultrasound hotspots” when scanned with the tricorder device.
The team is working to make this device ready to detect the presence of tumors and other health anomalies sometime within the next decade or so.