Reporter 443, 22 November 1999
University researchers are developing a safe alternative to X-rays which uses beams of light to see through skin and teeth. 'T-rays' - a technology fit for the new Millennium - is one of 40 EU-funded University projects beginning next year supported by £5m of new research money through the Framework Five programme. Projects across campus include efforts to protect 21st century drinking water from one of our present era's most dangerous legacies.
Sir Isaac Newton first demonstrated that there was more to light than, quite literally, meets the eye some 350 years ago. In the following years, science has exploited the complete spectrum of different frequencies discovered by Newton, with one exception. Radio waves are now as simple as clockwork, microwaves and ultra violet are part of everyday life, even the gamma rays of a nuclear explosion have been harnessed. But terahertz frequencies, which lie between the microwave and infra-red parts of the spectrum, remain invisible and untamed.
"Terahertz frequencies present us with a chicken and egg situation," said research leader Martyn Chamberlain. "The many scientific, technological and commercial opportunities they offer us will not take off until someone develops a low cost method of producing the rays. Our research consortium is developing suitable light sources to open up the so-called terahertz gap."
The new alternative to X-rays being developed in electronic and electrical engineering will produce non-ionising radiation, which is low energy and, therefore, safe. In medical applications being developed jointly with medical research dean Professor Mike Smith, the rays could be directed at the human body to pick out dense clumps of tumour cells, inflamed joints and even holes inside teeth standing out from surrounding tissue.
The technology also has surveillance applications. Images produced by T-rays can be tuned to pick out individual chemicals and will also penetrate clothing, enabling the detection of explosives on people or in luggage. Supermarket-wrapped chicken could also be scanned for contamination, for example during the recent food scare over dioxins in Belgium.
"The traditional driver for this type of technology has been the military," said Professor Chamberlain. "But this grant gives us an unrivalled opportunity to 'civilianise' it, allowing new directions to be dictated by consumer choice and social needs instead."
Professor Chamberlain's £440,000 programme is one of around 40 from the University to win funding in the first round of Framework Five (called 'Teravision', the project clearly has the best name by some distance).
The Fifth Framework programme is the European Commission's funding scheme for collaborative European research. Subject to final negotiation, researchers across campus will begin work on £5m worth of projects early next year.
Over £1m of this cash is heading for the Leeds Institute for Plant Biotechnology and Agriculture. The four separate collaborative projects in the institute have attracted support from over fifty European industrial and academic partners.
Other projects include a £150,000 effort to manufacture a 3D computer microchip (led by Professor Richard Bushby in chemistry), and £220,000 for an international project co-ordinated by Professor David Lewis in colour chemistry to clean up the clothing dye industry.
Professor Lewis has already pioneered a technique in Brazil which uses modified fabric to eliminate the use of salt and waste dyes, and the latest research grant will help bring this green approach to textiles in Europe. In some parts of the USA freshwater lakes have been turned to salt-water due to dye-house discharges, said Professor Lewis. Salt is presently needed to help the dyes stick, but chemical modification of the cellulose fibres reduces the salt requirement.
More sinister-sounding water pollution is being tackled by a team of chemistry and civil engineering researchers through a £140,000 Framework Five award. Uranium mines are leaking the deadly element into the drinking water supply of fourteen European countries. Researchers will be focusing on developing improved methods of filtering out uranium, and other metals from mining activities, using novel barriers that allow water through but remove contaminants. The international project includes researchers and industry in Germany, Hungary, Austria and Greece and will be based on the site of an abandoned mine in Hungary.
"Uranium mining is still a major activity in central and eastern European countries," said chemistry researcher Terry Kee. "The results of our research have to be commercially viable, in place and tested within three years - a challenge for all of us!"
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