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Issue 478, 4 March 2002

Judging books just by looking at the covers

Researchers at the University of Leeds may soon be reading books without opening the covers using terahertz spectroscopy – a form of electromagnetic imaging.

The technique is sensitive enough to 'see' the writing on each page within a book, limiting unnecessary handling of historical manuscripts while making their contents available to scholars and the wider public.

A 3m grant from the joint research councils will enable electrical engineers at Leeds and their collaborators at the University of Cambridge to exploit the potential uses of this new technology.

Far reaching vision – Robert Miles

Researcher Dr Robert Miles explains: "Until now we've been concentrating on the medical applications of the technology. Unlike X-rays, terahertz waves are not harmful, so there are no exposure worries for practitioners or patients.

"However, terahertz imaging is senstive enough to show the chemical breakdown of the object being studied. Terahertz waves make molecules vibrate, and the frequency of the vibration can tell you the chemicals present, and if there are chemical reactions taking place. This greatly increases the applications of the technology."

As well as looking at historical documents, the researchers will be working with York Archaeological Trust taking images of paintings and ceramics. They will discover what lies beneath the outer painting or glaze, and identify the substances involved, providing important information on the creation of the artefact and the technologies used by its maker.

Dr Miles will also be looking at applications of the technique for testing the composition of foodstuffs, with Leeds food scientist Eric Dickinson, and for analysing the wear and tear on fibres – mainly in industrial use – with Leeds textiles researcher Stephen Russell.

Dr Miles: "Terahertz is safer and more practical than many other imaging techniques, especially if we are able to develop hand-held imaging units."

The project is one of the first initiatives funded by the government's new basic technology research programme, supporting fundamental new technology with high impact and wide-reaching benefits.

See the University press release and the research councils press release on the basic technology research programme.

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