Consumer Physics Launches SCiO To Demystify Our Material World

Consumer Physics today unveiled SCiO, a handheld sensor that scans the molecular fingerprint of physical matter and instantly provides useful information about its chemical makeup. SCiO delivers real-time results to its mobile application on the user’s smartphone via Bluetooth LE. “Smartphones give us instant answers to questions like where to have dinner, what movie to see, and how to get from point A to point B, but when it comes to learning about what we interact with on a daily basis we’re left in the dark,” said Dror Sharon, CEO of Consumer Physics. “We designed SCiO to empower explorers everywhere with new knowledge and to encourage them to join our mission of mapping the physical world.”

When the product ships to consumers this fall, SCiO will include apps to help users identify the composition of food, medication, and plants. The food app delivers macro nutrient values (calories, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins), produce quality, ripeness, and spoilage analysis for various foods, including cheeses, fruits, vegetables, sauces, salad dressings, cooking oils, and more. SCiO can also identify and authenticate medication in real-time by cross-checking a pill’s molecular makeup with a database of medications. Finally, SCiO can analyze moisture levels in plants and tell users when to water them.

Consumer Physics will also support an Application Development Kit for third-party developers to start exploring their world. Developers can design and custom-build their own unique smartphone apps or physical form factors. The materials SCiO can analyze are endless, including cosmetics, clothes, flora, soil, jewels and precious stones, leather, rubber, oils, plastics, and even human tissue or bodily fluids. “With SCiO, Consumer Physics is launching their first game-changing consumer product. I believe this product will have greater impact than the USB flash-drive! Its near future and far future potential impacts on people’s life are tremendous,” said Dov Moran, the first seed investor in the company. Dov is the inventor of the USB flash-drive, and founder and CEO of Comigo, the future TV company. Previously Dov was founder of Modu, the modular phone company and of M-Systems, which was acquired by Sandisk for $1.6B.

About Consumer Physics
Consumer Physics was founded by Dror Sharon and Damian Goldring in 2011. It is backed by Khosla Ventures, a leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm that offers venture assistance, strategic advice and capital to entrepreneurs (http://www.khoslaventures.com). Early investors include Dov Moran, founder of Comigo, the future TV company (http://www.comigo.com) and the inventor of the USB flash-drive, and other leading angel investors. It has also raised money through OurCrowd, a hybrid VC-equity crowdfunding platform for accredited investors only who wish to invest in global early stage companies (https://www.ourcrowd.com).

Dror Moran of Consumer Physics

The company’s Israel-based R&D team is comprised of physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and computer and data scientists, most of whom have advanced science degrees and several with PhDs. Consumer Physics team members are affiliated with top schools and research institutions such as MIT, Caltech, HarvardStanfordRoyal College of Art, Weizmann Institute, The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and Tel-Aviv University.

Hand-Held Spectroscopy Tool Lets You Examine the Molecular Composition of Your Food
by Eliza Strickland  /   30 Apr 2014

Up on Mars, the Curiosity Rover uses its spectrometers to examine the chemical composition of the rocks and dirt on the red planet. Now the Israeli startup Consumer Physics has developed a tool that lets you conduct similar experiments in your own backyard or at your dinner table. The company launched a Kickstarter campaign today with the goal of raising US $200 000 to fund the first production run of its hand-held spectrometer, which is about the size of a flash drive. Using near-infrared spectroscopy, the device, called SCiO, shines light on a sample and measures the light absorption patterns of the molecules therein. It then identifies the object by its optical signature, and gives the user information about the object’s molecular composition. It uses bluetooth to link to the user’s smartphone, where an app manages the data. In a product demo for IEEE Spectrum last week, company CEO Dror Shalon held up a prototype SCiO to a block of Gouda he had just bought at Walgreens. After a brief flash of light and a few seconds of analysis, Shalon’s smartphone reported that the item was: cheese. While that might not seem like the most useful announcement for a functional human being with eyes, the SCiO can provide more info. After following a prompt to enter the portion size (which was on the cheese’s packaging), the app displayed that cheese’s calories per serving, as well as fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Of course, all that info was also on the cheese’s packaging. But Shalon says the SCiO’s abilities will shine forth at restaurants and anywhere people are grabbing food on the go.

Shalon thinks that consumer spectroscopy is an idea who’s time has come. Today’s quantified self gadgets let us track our bodies with unprecedented precision—we can count our steps taken, calories burned, and much more. But people who want that kind of information about the materials around them have been out of luck so far. “When we came up with this vision, I went to Amazon to search, because I was sure that it must exist already,” says Shalon. When his search came up empty, he and his team started working. Kickstarter backers who donate $149 will get the SCiO in December, along with free downloads of all the SCiO-specific apps that Consumer Physics will develop over the next two years. The company has already developed apps for identifying and authenticating pharmaceuticals, for checking the hydration of plants, and for measuring the sugar content of fruit. Shalon is hoping that third-party developers will find many other things to do with SCiO. “That’s the major reason we’re doing the Kickstarter campaign, to get the device into the hands of the early adopters,” he says.

One Day, You’ll Google the Physical World With a Scanner Like This
by    /  05.13.14

There are few technologies as comprehensive as Google. A simple search can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the world around you. But the world’s largest search engine, robust as it may be, has its shortcomings. Most notably, there’s no way to Google physical objects. Sure you can type in the word “apples,” but you can’t Google the apple sitting on your kitchen counter. You can Google your medication, but you can’t Google the pill you found at the bottom of your purse. That needs to change, says Dror Sharon. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Consumer Physics, a Tel Aviv startup trying to fill that gap with a handheld device called Scio. Scio is a scanner, about the size of a flash drive, that can determine the molecular makeup of objects like food and medication. Though it’s long been used in scientific environments, Consumer Physics has miniaturized the technology and made it more practical for consumers. This seemingly small development could have massive implications. It emits a beam of light, which you can shine on, say, a piece of fruit. The device will then connect to a smartphone app that reveals the nutritional breakdown of that piece of fruit. It uses near IR spectroscopy, and though it’s long been used in scientific environments, Consumer Physics has miniaturized the technology and made it more practical for consumers. This seemingly small development could have massive implications.

We’re on the cusp of a revolution in internet-connected devices. In the not-too-distant future, the technology we wear on our bodies and spread throughout our homes will know more about our lives than we do. But that future, which companies from Google and Nike to Jawbone and Fitbit are creating, is partly dependent on our ability to make technology ever smaller without sacrificing power. That’s where Scio comes in. What’s most exciting about this technology is not what it can do today. Sure, learning the nutritional breakdown of an apple simply by shining a light on it is a fun party trick, but it isn’t groundbreaking. What’s truly exciting about what Sharon’s team has built is how many technologies and applications can be built on top of it. “We are going to build the world’s largest database of fingerprints for our physical world and give developers a platform to create new applications,” Sharon says. That’s one key reason why Consumer Physics launched a Kickstarter campaign last month, after already raising venture funding from Khosla Ventures and others. The campaign has been a runaway success. With 33 days to go, Scio has raised more than $1.2 million, far surpassing the $200,000 goal. Kickstarter, says Sharon, is a way to “engage makers, hackers, and folks that could really take this to the next level.”

Sharon and his co-founder Damian Goldring met in 1993, when they were standing in the same line at a military recruiting base in Israel. They went through the same military program, received their engineering degrees from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and stayed in touch through the early days of their careers. It wasn’t until 2011, however, when they ran into each other on the beach in Tel Aviv, that they considered building a company together. At the time, Sharon was working at a venture capital firm, while Goldring was developing technology for smartphone cameras. Both were looking for a new project, and Sharon raised an issue that had been dogging him for years: There was no way to “look up” objects in the physical world. Thanks to the smartphone camera industry, a tremendous amount of time and money had already been devoted to miniaturizing optics technology. Sharon and Goldring figured they could apply those great technological strides to making a miniature spectrometer, no different from the technology being used in scientific labs around the world. “We both jumped out of nice jobs. We had kids that were several months old, and we said this is what we’re going to do and got started,” Sharon remembers.

The two founders gathered a team of physicists, engineers, data scientists, food technologists, optical design specialists, and others. They took a lean startup approach to prototyping, rapidly shipping new prototypes and killing off old features. The final product, which will begin shipping to Kickstarter backers later this year, works by shining a light on an object at a very specific wavelength. That causes the molecules to vibrate, and the light that’s reflected carries that object’s molecular signature. The Scio app then uses an algorithm to compare that signature to its entire database and provide the end user with the object’s molecular breakdown. The first Kickstarter backers will be able to analyze plants, foods, and medication using the Scio app, but Sharon is hoping that’s just the beginning. The company has created its own Application Development Kit, and Sharon is looking forward to seeing what comes out of it. He also says that in the not too distant future, people who want access to this type of technology may not even need to own a Scio. “I’m absolutely positive something like this will be built into smartphones, wearables, and internet connected devices,” he says.

Advanced two dimensional projection of sample's spectra to distinguish between classesAdvanced two dimensional projection of sample’s spectra to distinguish between classes

Smart Everything
Sharon envisions smart refrigerators that can more accurately determine when food has gone bad, smart pill bottles that know if a drug is counterfeit, smart parking spots that know when you need more air in your tires, and more. He sees applications in agriculture, petrochemicals, and cosmetics, among other things, but he says Consumer Physics will be just one of many companies figuring out the best way to use this technology. “Finding the appropriate use cases is going to be important,” says William Rosenzweig, managing partner of the science and health-based venture capital firm Physic Ventures, and one of Consumer Physics’ investors. “I’m intrigued and inspired by the fact that you can potentially crowdsource those ideas. An entrepreneur can now choose to create openness on a platform and doesn’t have to think of everything himself.”

Jones believes there’s too much guesswork involved in Scio’s predictions, because it has to compare each object’s molecular fingerprint to the rest of its database. Of course, not everyone is convinced this grand experiment will work. As Dr. Oliver Jones of RMIT University’s School of Applied Science recently told CNET, it’s possible that Consumer Physics “sacrificed sensitivity for size.” He said there could be too much guesswork involved in Scio’s predictions, because it has to compare each object’s molecular fingerprint to the rest of its database. That means, it might be making some leaps based on information it’s seen before, and not, in fact, giving users the exact molecular breakdown of the object in hand. “I think the spectra that the instrument generates are not particularly detailed, which is why what comes out is also not that detailed,” Dr. Jones explained. Chris Harrison, assistant professor of chemistry at San Diego State University, says another issue is that the Scio may not take into account the entire sample it’s testing, and might only measure the object where the light is hitting it. Still, he says, “I think if it does what they claim it does for the price point they’re offering, that’s pretty impressive.” Sharon, for one, says he expects the initial set of Kickstarter backers to teach him a lot about what still needs to be done. “We’re going to make this for real backers, real customer,” he says. “They’ll get it. They’ll like it or they’ll hate it. But we’ll talk to them.”

Spectra of different pills

Scio: This device tells you the chemical makeup of your food, drinks, and pills
by Dean Takahashi /   April 29, 2014

Consumer Physics is unveiling its Scio handheld sensor, which can scan food, pills, or plants and tell you the chemical makeup of the object. It delivers those results wirelessly in real-time to the user’s smartphone. Once the device ships later this year, you’ll be able to use it to decipher the calorie content of the food in front of you, whether the pill you’re about to take is a counterfeit, or if that alligator handbag is really made out of alligator leather. It is one more example of creating a useful app by combining a miniaturized sensor with the computational power of a smartphone connected to a data center. “Smartphones give us instant answers to questions like where to have dinner, what movie to see, and how to get from point A to point B, but when it comes to learning about what we interact with on a daily basis, we’re left in the dark,” said Dror Sharon, CEO of Consumer Physics. “We designed Scio to empower explorers everywhere with new knowledge and to encourage them to join our mission of mapping the physical world.”

The Israeli startup is launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $200,000 for Scio (which is Latin for “to know”) today. Early backers can preorder the device for $149. At first Scio will come with apps for analyzing food, medication, and plants. You can use it to refine the ingredients of your home-brewed beer or figure out if an Internet site’s cheap Viagra is fake. Later, the company will add the ability to check samples from cosmetics, clothes, flora, soil, jewels, precious stones, leather, rubber, oils, plastics, and even human tissue or bodily fluids. “You can use your phone to tell what song is playing on the radio, but you can’t tell how sweet an apple is or how much fat is in a piece of cheese,” Sharon said in an interview with VentureBeat.

The device uses a molecular spectrometer, which uses near-infrared light. It shines light on a sample, exciting the molecules and making them vibrate in a unique way. With most objects (except metals), some of the light is absorbed and some bounces back. Each object has its own optical signature. The spectrometer figures out what the object is based on the infrared light that reflects back to the scanner. Most objects have different absorption rates, as they vibrate at different levels on the molecular scale. The app takes the data and compares it to a cloud-based database of objects in a distant data center. When it gets a match, it sends the results to the user’s smartphone. “We took the underlying physics of spectroscopy and miniaturized it,” Sharon said. The food app tells you calories, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, based on your own estimate of the weight of the food you’re about to eat. (With many food packages, you can get the weight from the label). The app could tell dieters exactly how many calories they’re about to consume, while fitness apps can tell them how many calories they’re burning. That helps people figure out exactly how much exercise they need to do in order to burn off the food they’re eating.

The food app can also gauge produce quality, ripeness, and spoilage for foods like cheeses, fruits, vegetables, sauces, salad dressings, cooking oils, and more. It also analyzes moisture levels in plants and tells users when to water them. You might even be able to analyze your blood alcohol level one day, but Scio is not currently approved as a medical device. It can detect materials through objects such as glass. Sharon said that you might be able to use it to detect whether someone has put a “date rape” pill in your drink. As users conduct more tests, the app gets better and better at correctly identifying objects. While you’re waiting, a ring fills up with circles on your smartphone screen, much like with the Shazam song-identification app. It takes a matter of seconds to recognize something. Scio has to be about 20 millimeters from an object before it can be used for scanning. The scanner uses Bluetooth low energy to connect with a smartphone, which needs either iOS 5 or Android 4.3 or higher.

With a medical app, Scio can authenticate medication such as headache pills. In one test, Sharon was able to correctly identify the type and retailer of the Advil pill that he placed inside the Scio prototype reader, which is about the size of a small pencil sharpener box. It can only detect objects that were previously uploaded to its database, and the method doesn’t work on metals. As the database expands, it will be useful for more kinds of consumer items, giving consumers the ability to check the veracity of products before they buy them in a store. “We want to open this up to a developer community and start selling this to people who want to explore the world,” Sharon said. “They can keep their own databases. The more we measure, the more we learn. The more everybody learns.” Federal border inspectors use spectrometers to identify goods that are being imported into the country, but those machines are usually big appliances inside cabinets. In 2011, Sharon and his cofounder Damian Goldring, chief technology officer, began investigating how to shrink the expensive laboratory equipment down to smaller sizes that can be mass-produced at low costs. That involved creating a semiconductor chip that could be cost reduced over time. “I believe this product will have greater impact than the USB flash-drive. Its near future and far future potential impacts on people’s life are tremendous,” said Dov Moran, the first seed investor in the company and previously the founder of modular phone company Modu and flash chip designer M-Systems, which Sandisk bought for $1.6 billion.

Khosla Ventures is also a backer, and the company has raised money through OurCrowd, an equity-based crowdfunding platform for accredited investors. The company has 17 engineers and 20 more part-time employees and consultants. Sharon and Goldring, who met during their college years at Israel’s Technion university, have assembled a team of physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, and data scientists. Google has its own Google Goggles recognition software, but it uses image recognition. “That doesn’t tell you anything about the underlying chemistry,” Sharon said. “The label may tell you what is supposed to be in a package. We can tell you what is really in it.”

Lab technicians building the first database of pillsOur lab technicians building the first database of pills

This Tiny Device Fits On Your Keychain And Measures The Calories In Your Dinner
by Jessica Leber  /  May 13, 2014

The holy grail for dieters–a way to accurately and easily measure the calories and fat in the food that’s on our plates and entering our mouths–is getting closer to reality. The SCiO, a handheld “pocket molecular sensor” device that is taking off on Kickstarter that can scan food, medicines, and plants and figure out what’s in it, isn’t quite it. But it’s close. To use the SCiO, you hold the device between your index finger and thumb close to the food, and press a button that shines a blue light onto whatever food item you’re testing. It also works through some clear plastic wrappers. Within a few seconds, the sensor inside measures the wavelengths of light that reflect from the substance, which produces a spectrum that relates to the unique molecular composition of what’s inside. Via bluetooth, the device sends this information to an app on your smartphone. And with the help of algorithms that analyze the spectrum and learn from a database of all of the substances that every SCiO has already scanned, it can spit out information about what’s actually in the product.

In the demo, the SCiO’s measurements came close to the nutritional labels displayed on two cheeses, as seen in the chart I put together above (the FDA already allows nutritional labels to be within a +/- 20% error range). Perhaps more impressively, the SCiO accurately identified a pill of ibuprofen that I had procured from my cubicle. It read out that it was a generic purchased at CVS, even though I had handed it to Sharon in a branded Advil bottle. To my surprise, the device was right: I had forgotten that I had refilled my Advil bottle with a generic a few weeks earlier. There are some obvious limitations to its use. For food, the device only scans a small nickel-sized area and penetrates a depth of a few millimeters. So it won’t capture the caloric variety of a hearty stew, nor will it be able to tell you how many calories or fats are on your full plate. Rather, the user must input the portion size he or she will be eating and the device will simply extrapolate from a small food sample. To compare foods if portion size isn’t known, another function of the app can tell you whether an apple or a tomato is sweeter, based on their relative caloric counts. The device also depends on improving and learning from the knowledge in its database, which is one reason why Consumer Physics is running a Kickstarter campaign. It’s looking for early adopters to go out and sample the world around them–creating a “physical database of matter” that will help expand the range of foods, medicines, and plants that the SCiO can identify. When I handed Sharon a Vitamin D pill to scan, the device hadn’t seen it yet and couldn’t recognize it. Instead, I had the option of helping put it in their database.

UPDATE (5/14), added quote Gerard Downey, an Irish research scientist at the Teagasc Food Research Centre in Dublin, doubted the quality of the crowdsourced data the company will collect, especially because there will be no standard samples against which to verify its results. “The database is critical. You could produce the nicest, most highly-performing spectroscopic instrument you like, but if your database is bad, you’re not going to get good results,” he says. “Its not sufficient to wander around the supermarket, pick up a piece of cheese and accept that cheese as a representative sample.” Sharon says the device will be open to developers to make up new applications for the sensor. While Consumer Physics plans to retail the standalone device, the company’s ultimate goal is to keep making it cheaper and smaller. One day, Sharon hopes, you’ll be able to do the same scans from your smartphone or maybe even your smart fridge. All in all, the technology is impressive. But at the price, I don’t expect it will be useful enough that it would be a device that everyone will want to purchase (despite its huge popularity on Kickstarter). After all, in many cases, people can just read a nutrition label. In others, the need to know the portion size will be limiting. Perhaps it will also be used as an education gadget or a portable quality control tool. But if the promise of continued cost reductions holds up, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years we see magical material scanners everywhere.

TellSpec is a handheld food scanner that connects to your smartphone to inform you about a...

TellSpec hand-held scanner identifies what’s in your food
by   / December 23, 2013

Figuring out whether the fries on your plate contain traces of trans-fat, or if those celery sticks are truly pesticide-free can be tricky, if not impossible. That’s why Isabel Hoffmann along with mathematician Stephen Watson set out to create TellSpec, a hand-held device that you can simply point at a food item, to identify what’s in it. Not only does the device warn you about chemicals, allergens and ingredients you’d rather avoid, it’ll also help you figure out food sensitivities and track your vitamin intake. The goal, the company says, is to help people make clean food choices by letting them “check their food as easily as they check their mail.”

“We want to promote healthier eating, alert those who have allergies and educate consumers by telling them exactly what’s in their food – beyond what the label says,” Hoffman tells Gizmag. The device utilizes a small Raman spectrometer, a unique cloud-based algorithm and a simple smartphone app. Scanning a food item on the plate or in a shopping aisle is as simple as aiming TellSpec at it and pushing a button. It beams a low-powered laser at the item and analyzes the reflected light waves to identify the chemical makeup of the food. This data is uploaded to the analysis engine which processes the information, compares it to reference spectra, interprets the results with the help of a database, and downloads the results to the user’s smartphone. Hoffman states that the device can successfully identify foods and their ingredients approximately 97.7 percent of the time after scanning the food’s surface.

“Depending on how transparent the surface of the food is, the more accurate the scan will be,” explains Hoffman. “Users must understand that these scans can only go so deep. To scan a Twinkie, the user could do two separate scans for a more accurate reading. One at the surface and then a second in the center of the Twinkie.” The team scanned 3,000 food items to create the initial database, but the device can potentially identify an unlimited number of ingredients, according to Hoffman. Its ability to make identifications is expected to increase exponentially as the number of TellSpec users grow, and add their own scans of different food items. Initially the company plans to direct 82 beta food testers early next spring (Northern Hemisphere) to startTellSpecing as soon as the devices become available, increasing the breadth and depth of the food data. “This is the crowd-sourced element of our clean food revolution,” Hoffman tells us. “It is literally in the hands of the people. It is they who will truly participate actively in creating a global footprint of food data.The food database is an evolving number – the more people scan, the more the database grows and the more precise the scans become.”

We’ve seen devices like the iTube which turns a smartphone into an allergen sensor, but TellSpec is designed to be a smart device. It will do more than tell you if there’s Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in that soup mix or if those chips are truly gluten-free. It can also give you the background story on little-known ingredients like Tartrazine, a synthetic lemon yellow that’s commonly used as food coloring. For the calorie conscious, TellSpec can breakdown the amount of sugars, fats and more per gram of a scanned food item. It can help users ascertain that they stay within recommended limits, when it comes to their intake of toxic substances like mercury.

Plans are in the works to have the device calculate the volume of food a person consumes, too. While it doesn’t diagnose food sensitivities or allergies, users who are uncertain about food triggers can log in symptoms after they’ve eaten something (like feeling uncomfortable after drinking a glass of milk) to get TellSpec’s suggestions. “It will ask you how you feel,” Hoffman explains. “If you tell Tellspec you feel bloated, it will suggest that it may be caused by lactose and that you should check with your doctor about the possibility of an allergy.” Hoffman hopes that the device will find use as a holistic health tool, as its food database grows larger and people use it in real time to register any disturbing symptoms. “Eventually, the food data ‘bank’ will compile across time, peoples’ historical food data and individual symptoms at a global level,” says Hoffman. “These correlations between how people feel and what they really eat will eventually lead to a ‘TellSpecodedia’ of food data and personalized health information.”

All the TellSpec data will be open source, allowing anyone to use the data to create their own health-based apps. For instance, a diabetic app that tracks blood sugar levels could utilize TellSpec data to track what sugars or carbohydrates the user consumes, and identify ingredients in their food that would also convert into sugar. “By sharing our API with the world, we want TellSpec to engage the crowd-sourcing power that a group and population bring to any problem,” says Hoffman. “One or two brains on any food issue would not yield the answers that the world could definitely benefit from. We want this to be an open source for new applications and new fields of study that grow from a source of food data that has never been available before.” TellSpec is currently under development, after raising three times its funding goal on Indiegogo. Shipping is slated to begin in August 2014. Its US$320 price tag includes one year of free analysis of food scans, with further analyses being made available through subscription plans.

Label It Yourself: GMO Labeling Goes DIY
by Ramon Gonzalez  / November 13, 2012

Food activists may have lost the Label GMO battle in California this year, but they’re not giving up without a fight. Prop 37’s failure at the polls has spawned a “decentralized, autonomous grassroots campaign” encouraging citizens to take it upon themselves to label GMO foods at local groceries. Alex Bogusky, the former ad executive turned activist behind the viral Real Bears video, recently tweeted support for the campaign, pointing out that Label It Yourself makes it easy to “sicker bomb the local grocery.” The Label It Yourself website contains GMO labeling guidelines and a list of ingredients that may contain GMOs to help interested activists know what to label.

To aid activists, the group has produced printable GMO warning labels featuring a skull with ears of corn growing out of it. There is also a Label It Yourself tumblr where images of the guerrilla GMO labeling campaign are being submitted. Can you get in trouble by sticking these labels on products at your grocery store? “I’m pretty sure it’s illegal if you do it beyond your own cupboard. That’s why I don’t suggest anybody do it. Just letting them know it’s out there,” Mr. Bogusky told Ad Age when asked to respond about the legalities of the campaign. Labeling the food that the person who does the shopping in your household brings home is a good way to start a conversation about what is in the food you eat without getting arrested or sued by big food.

Light illustration (conceptual stock image). A device that essentially listens for light waves could help open up the last frontier of the electroma gnetic spectrum — the terahertz range. {Credit: © SSilver / Fotolia} 

New ‘T-ray’ tech converts light to sound for weapons detection, medical imaging  /  May 22, 2014

A device that essentially listens for light waves could help open up the last frontier of the electromagnetic spectrum — the terahertz range. So-called T-rays, which are light waves too long for human eyes to see, could help airport security guards find chemical and other weapons. They might let doctors image body tissues with less damage to healthy areas. And they could give astronomers new tools to study planets in other solar systems. Those are just a few possible applications. A device that essentially listens for light waves could help open up the last frontier of the electromagnetic spectrum — the terahertz range. So-called T-rays, which are light waves too long for human eyes to see, could help airport security guards find chemical and other weapons. They might let doctors image body tissues with less damage to healthy areas. And they could give astronomers new tools to study planets in other solar systems. Those are just a few possible applications. But because terahertz frequencies fall between the capabilities of the specialized tools presently used to detect light, engineers have yet to efficiently harness them. The U-M researchers demonstrated a unique terahertz detector and imaging system that could bridge this terahertz gap. “We convert the T-ray light into sound,” said Jay Guo, U-M professor of electrical engineering and computer science, mechanical engineering, and macromolecular science and engineering. “Our detector is sensitive, compact and works at room temperature, and we’ve made it using an unconventional approach.” The sound the detector makes is too high for human ears to hear.

The terahertz gap is a sliver between the microwave and infrared bands of the electromagnetic spectrum — the range of light’s wavelengths and frequencies. That spectrum spans from the longest, low-energy radio waves that can carry songs to our receivers to the shortest, high-energy gamma rays that are released when nuclear bombs explode and radioactive atoms decay. In between are the microwave frequencies that can cook food or transport cell phone signals, the infrared that enables heat vision technologies, the visible wavelengths that light and color our world, and X-rays that give doctors a window under our skin.

The terahertz band is “scientifically rich,” according to Guo and colleagues. But today’s detectors either are bulky, need to be kept cold to work or can’t operate in real time. That limits their usefulness for applications like weapons and chemical detection and medical imaging and diagnosis, Guo says. Guo and colleagues invented a special transducer that makes the light-to-sound conversion possible. A transducer turns one form of energy into another. In this case it turns terahertz light into ultrasound waves and then transmits them. The transducer is made of a mixture of a spongy plastic called polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS, and carbon nanotubes. Here’s how it works:

When the terahertz light hits the transducer, the nanotubes absorb it, turning it into heat. They pass that heat on to the PDMS. The heated PDMS expands, creating an outgoing pressure wave. That’s the ultrasound wave. It’s more than 1,000 times too high for human ears to pick up. “There are many ways to detect ultrasound,” Guo said. “We transformed a difficult problem into a problem that’s already been solved.” Though ultrasound detectors exist — including those used in medical imaging — the researchers made their own sensitive one in the form of a microscopic plastic ring known as a microring resonator. The structure measures only a few millimeters in size. They connected their system to a computer and demonstrated that they could use it to scan and produce an image of an aluminum cross.

The response speed of the new detector is a fraction of a millionth of a second, which Guo says can enable real-time terahertz imaging in many areas. The system is different from other heat-based terahertz detection systems because it responds to the energy of individual terahertz light pulses, rather than a continuous stream of T-rays. Because of this, it isn’t sensitive to variations in the outside temperature, Guo says. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Journal Reference: Sung-Liang Chen, You-Chia Chang, Cheng Zhang, Jong G. Ok, Tao Ling, Momchil T. Mihnev, Theodore B. Norris, L. Jay Guo. Efficient real-time detection of terahertz pulse radiation based on photoacoustic conversion by carbon nanotube nanocomposite. Nature Photonics, 2014; DOI:10.1038/nphoton.2014.96