Terahertz radiation

Terahertz radiation

Electromagnetic waves sent at terahertz frequencies, known as terahertz radiation, submillimeter radiation, terahertz waves, terahertz light, T-rays, T-light, T-lux and THz, are in the region of the electromagnetic spectrum between 300 gigahertz (3x1011 Hz) and 3 terahertz (3x1012 Hz), corresponding to the submillimeter wavelength range between 1 millimeter (high-frequency edge of the microwave band) and 100 micrometer (long-wavelength edge of far-infrared light).


Like infrared radiation or microwaves, these waves usually travel in line of sight. Terahertz radiation is non-ionizing submillimeter microwave radiation and shares with microwaves the capability to penetrate a wide variety of non-conducting materials. Terahertz radiation can pass through clothing, paper, cardboard, wood, masonry, plastic and ceramics. It can also penetrate fog and clouds, but cannot penetrate metal or water. The Earth's atmosphere is a strong absorber of terahertz radiation, so the range of terahertz radiation is quite short, limiting its usefulness for communications. In addition, producing and detecting coherent terahertz radiation was technically challenging until the 1990s.


Terahertz radiation is emitted as part of the black body radiation from anything with temperatures greater than about 10 kelvin. While this thermal emission is very weak, observations at these frequencies are important for characterizing the cold 10-20K dust in the interstellar medium in the Milky Way galaxy, and in distant starburst galaxies. Telescopes operating in this band include the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the Submillimeter Array at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawai'i, the BLAST balloon borne telescope, and the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona. Planned telescopes operating in the submillimeter include the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the Herschel Space Observatory. The opacity of the Earth's atmosphere to submillimeter radiation restricts these observatories to very high altitude sites, or to space.

As of 2004 the only viable sources of terahertz radiation were the gyrotron, the backward wave oscillator ("BWO"), the far infrared laser ("FIR laser"), quantum cascade laser, the free electron laser (FEL), synchrotron light sources, photomixing sources, and single-cycle sources used in Terahertz time domain spectroscopy. The first images generated using terahertz radiation date from the 1960s; however, in 1995, images generated using terahertz time-domain spectroscopy generated a great deal of interest, and sparked a rapid growth in the field of terahertz science and technology. This excitement, along with the associated coining of the term "T-rays", even showed up in a contemporary novel by Tom Clancy.

There have also been solid-state sources of millimeter and submillimeter waves for many years. AB Millimeter in Paris, for instance, produces a system that covers the entire range from 8 GHz to 1000 GHz with solid state sources and detectors. Nowadays, most time-domain work is done via ultrafast lasers.

In mid-2007, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, along with collaborators in Turkey and Japan, announced the creation of a compact device that can lead to a portable, battery-operated sources of T-rays, or terahertz radiation. The group was led by Ulrich Welp of Argonne's Materials Science Division. This new T-ray source uses high-temperature superconducting crystals grown at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. These crystals comprise stacks of Josephson junctions that exhibit a unique electrical property: when an external voltage is applied, an alternating current will flow back and forth across the junctions at a frequency proportional to the strength of the voltage; this phenomenon is known as the Josephson effect. These alternating currents then produce electromagnetic fields whose frequency is tuned by the applied voltage. Even a small voltage – around two millivolts per junction – can induce frequencies in the terahertz range, according to Welp.

In 2008 engineers at Harvard University announced they had built a room temperature semiconductor source of coherent Terahertz radiation. Until then sources had required cryogenic cooling, greatly limiting their use in everyday applications.

Theoretical and technological uses under development

  • Medical imaging:
    • Terahertz radiation is non-ionizing, and thus is not expected to damage tissues and DNA, unlike X-rays. Some frequencies of terahertz radiation can penetrate several millimeters of tissue with low water content (e.g. fatty tissue) and reflect back. Terahertz radiation can also detect differences in water content and density of a tissue. Such methods could allow effective detection of epithelial cancer with a safer and less invasive or painful system using imaging.
    • Some frequencies of terahertz radiation can be used for 3D imaging of teeth and may be more accurate and safer than conventional X-ray imaging in dentistry.
  • Security:
    • Terahertz radiation can penetrate fabrics and plastics, so it can be used in surveillance, such as security screening, to uncover concealed weapons on a person, remotely. This is of particular interest because many materials of interest, such as plastic explosives, have unique spectral "fingerprints" in the terahertz range. This offers the possibility to combine spectral identification with imaging. Passive detection of Terahertz signatures avoid the bodily privacy concerns of other detection by being targeted to a very specific range of materials and objects.
  • Scientific use and imaging:
    • Spectroscopy in terahertz radiation could provide novel information in chemistry and biochemistry.
    • Recently developed methods of THz time-domain spectroscopy (THz TDS) and THz tomography have been shown to be able to perform measurements on, and obtain images of, samples which are opaque in the visible and near-infrared regions of the spectrum. The utility of THz-TDS is limited when the sample is very thin, or has a low absorbance, since it is very difficult to distinguish changes in the THz pulse caused by the sample from those caused by long term fluctuations in the driving laser source or experiment. However, THz-TDS produces radiation that is both coherent and broadband, so such images can contain far more information than a conventional image formed with a single-frequency source.
    • A primary use of submillimeter waves in physics is the study of condensed matter in high magnetic fields, since at high fields (over about 15 teslas), the Larmor frequencies are in the submillimeter band. This work is performed at many high-magnetic field laboratories around the world.
    • Submillimetre astronomy.
    • Terahertz radiation could let art historians see murals hidden beneath coats of plaster or paint in centuries-old building, without harming the artwork.
  • Communication:
  • Manufacturing:

Terahertz versus submillimeter waves

The terahertz band, covering the wavelength range between 0.1 and 1 mm, is identical to the submillimeter wavelength band. However, typically, the term "terahertz" is used more often in marketing in relation to generation and detection with pulsed lasers, as in terahertz time domain spectroscopy, while the term "submillimeter" is used for generation and detection with microwave technology, such as harmonic multiplication.

References and notes

Books on millimeter and submillimeter waves and RF optics

See also

External links

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