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Pitt Researchers Develop World's Smallest Terahertz Scanner

Airport scanners identify the basics — shirts, shoes, a clear travel-sized bottle of shampoo — but what about your molecules?

University of Pittsburgh physicists have invented the world’s smallest terahertz detector that could soon scan molecules in a fashion similar to airport screenings.

Using terahertz radiation — a level of light far below what the human eye can notice — the detector might have the ability to chemically identify single molecules.

Jeremy Levy, a professor at Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, compared his work to a child’s toy.

“Very much like an Etch A Sketch, we can create very small lines and wires and circuits,” Levy said. “And we basically wanted to see if we could sketch something that would operate in a manner that’s very similar to how the airport scanners operate, but basically scaling it down to the size of a single molecule.”

He said the scanner is only 10 nanometers wide, or 10 one-billionths of a meter.

The radiation, found between infrared waves and microwaves on the electromagnetic spectrum, is generated and detected using a “laser strobe light” that turns on and off in less  30 quadrillionths of a second.

That's point 000000000000030 of a second.

While no individual molecules have been identified yet, Levy said his team has been successful in generating terahertz radiation and detecting it at the molecular scale.

Levy hopes this technology will allow researchers to study atomic matter more accurately.

“We can first find the molecule and then create this detector around it and then use the detector to help identify the molecule, not just know that something’s there,” Levy said, “but know exactly from the unique terahertz spectrum we would be able to tell what kind of molecule it is.”

He said this technology could potentially be used to more effectively identify tap water impurities.

The paper, “Broadband Terahertz Generation and Detection at 10 nm Scale,” was published in “Nano Letters,” an American Chemical Society journal.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."