The once unfathomable technologies of science fiction are starting to become a reality, and the latest of comes in the form of an affordable x-ray scanner no bigger than a stick of chewing gum.
Developed by a group of engineers at the University of Missouri, the tiny machine credits its size to a crystal with piezoelectric properties. Putting the crystals under stress generates an electrical current. Conversely, running a current through one of the crystals will cause it to release energy as vibrations.
Scott Kovaleski, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University, took advantage of this effect by using an atypical alternating current—10 volts alternating at 40,000 times per second (the household standard is 120 volts alternating at 60 times per second)—to make the crystals vibrate in a particular way that he says "rings like a bell."
Kovaleski turned 10 volts into 100,000 by modifiying the crystals' ends with sharp, microscopic bits of wire, where electric fields have a tendency to build. X-ray photons then come from the fast moving electrons hitting other atoms. Adding a dense material (in this case, lead) gives the electrons plenty to crash into. Boom — instant portable x-rays.
The potential for this technology is incredible: injuries could be diagnosed on the spot, security guards could analyse suspicious containers where they lie, and all of this would be done while minimising the individual's own exposure to potentially harmful rays. Plus, it's inexpensive, and made of fairly common parts. Welcome to the future. [Discovery News]