While we’ve seen developments that could see T-ray spectrometers featuring in a future handheld tricorder-like device, good ol’ X-rays could also get a guernsey thanks to an engineering team from the University of Missouri. The team has invented an accelerator about the size of a stick of gum that can create X-rays and other forms of radiation, opening up the possibility of cheap and portable X-ray scanners.

As well as being small, the device requires just a fraction of the electricity used by current X-ray machines. Using a crystal made from lithium niobate, it uses the piezoelectric effect to amplify an electrical input of 10 volts to produce more than 100,000 volts of electricity. This could allow the crystal to be powered by batteries in a handheld device.

“Currently, X-ray machines are huge and require tremendous amounts of electricity,” said Scott Kovaleski, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at MU. “In approximately three years, we could have a prototype hand-held X-ray scanner using our invention. The cell-phone-sized device could improve medical services in remote and impoverished regions and reduce health care expenses everywhere.”

In addition to potentially putting an X-ray scanner in every doctor’s office, Kovaleski says the technology has a wide variety of potential applications. It could improve border security by allowing more widespread searching of cargo at border crossings, while the size and low energy requirements of the technology would also be perfect for inclusion on future interplanetary probes, like the Curiosity rover.

Closer to home, Kovaleski says the device could also allow dentists to take X-rays from the inside of the mouth so that the rays are shooting outward, rather than exposing the patient’s head to harmful radiation.

Because the accelerator is able to create forms of radiation other than X-rays, it also has the potential to replace the radioisotopes used in drilling for oil and in other industrial and scientific operations. Additionally, the device offers a safer source of radiation as it can be turned off in the event of an emergency.

“Our device is perfectly harmless until energized, and even then it causes relatively low exposures to radiation,” said Kovaleski. “We have never really had the ability to design devices around a radioisotope with an on-off switch. The potential for innovation is very exciting.”

The technology is detailed in a paper published in the journal IEEE Transaction on Plasma Science.

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