Transforming terahertz

30 November 2010

Terahertz mixer containing a Schottky diode
Terahertz mixer containing a Schottky diode

A UK company is set to transform electronics for security scanners and cancer detection.

Teratech Components Ltd, a recent spinout from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), is a new UK company that is set to transform the use of terahertz electronics and has just won one of four runner-up prizes worth £10,000 each, in Research Council’s UK (RCUK) Business Plan Competition 2010. The technology being exploited by Teratech depends on the fabrication of electronic devices that operate above 100 GHz, where traditional electronic circuits no-longer function.

It is a generic device technology that can be used as both a detector and source of THz radiation, opening the potential for very high frequency communication systems and radars. The devices, which are called Schottky Diodes, operate at room temperature, rather than under cryogenic conditions like most competitor technologies, significantly simplifying system infrastructure and reducing cost. Teratech will transform the use of terahertz electronics by applying it to applications in security imaging, telecommunications and cancer detection, and engaging with industry and new markets outside of the traditional space sector.

Terahertz applications span the physical (security imaging), biological (cell formation) and medical (cancerous tumour detection) sciences with a growing interest in the application of THz frequencies to security imaging through clothing in airport scanners and to non-destructive pharmaceutical and manufacturing inspection through multilayered or opaque surfaces.

The unique properties of THz radiation also include high frequency radar to produce high-resolution images of objects through cloud, fog and dust storms to support aircraft landing in harsh environments. THz is non-ionising, and therefore safe to humans. It penetrates a wide variety of non-conducting materials including clothing, paper, plastics and ceramics, and can also penetrate fog and clouds, but is strongly absorbed by metal and water.

The Earth’s atmosphere is a strong absorber of terahertz radiation across most of the spectrum although there are narrow less absorbing window bands making it an ideal technique for observing the planet’s climate. The high frequency THz band of the electromagnetic spectrum is still largely unexplored and was originally developed for niche applications in astronomy and monitoring of the Earth’s atmosphere. As the technology has matured however, and the costs reduced, new commercial applications are becoming viable.

The electromagnetic spectrum covers radio waves to X-rays and includes visible light. THz is the region of this spectrum between microwaves and the infrared. Well known electronic devices, such as transistors, operate efficiently up to frequencies of around 100 GHz.

The Teratech team is led by Byron Alderman from STFC. Byron said: “This is excellent news today and will give the company a real boost. Our vision is to transform the use of terahertz electronics technology and working towards the Business Plan Competition is helping us towards achieving this aim. The competition has involved working closely with business and industry to develop our skills in business planning. In the past the prize money awarded to winners of the RCUK Business Plan Competition has proved invaluable in helping companies grow their business and I know we’ll put it to good use!”

Teratech was spun out from technology developed by the Millimetre Technology (MMT) group at RAL Space. The group have developed THz components over the last twenty years for use in the Earth observation and astronomy fields, and in the security sector.

Professor Dave Delpy, RCUK Impact Champion said: “It is vital to the future prosperity of the UK that research and business work together in partnership. The RCUK Business Plan Competition is just one of the current mechanisms that the Research Councils have to help researchers work with business and industry to gain the relevant skills to turn their work into successful commercial ventures. The five finalists in this year’s competition come from a variety of academic backgrounds and they should each be congratulated for their commitment over the last year, during the demanding process of turning their research into award winning business propositions.”

The RCUK Business Plan Competition has been running for six years and has helped researchers work with business and industry to gain the appropriate skills to turn their work into successful business applications.

RCUK is the strategic partnership of the UK's seven Research Councils and invests around £3 billion in research annually. The seven UK Research Councils are:
• Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
• Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
• Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC)
• Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
• Medical Research Council (MRC)
• Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
• Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

STFC funds research across the UK, Europe and the world in science and technology. STFC’s Space Science and Technology Department works on many areas of space and astronomy research and technology, from high performance telescopes and optics to space missions and robotics.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:
• The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
• The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
• The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh

The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Chile, and in the UK LOFAR and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The Council works closely with the UK Space Agency on exploiting UK membership of the European Space Agency (ESA) and delivering the UK civil space programme.

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