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I hate going to the dentist. For all the typical reasons–who likes people wielding sharp tools on their gums?–but for another one too: I’m bothered by getting X-rays. Maybe I’m unduly paranoid about such things, but when a technician covers me with a lead sheet, points a giant machine at my head, and runs for cover, I get nervous. But what if X-ray machines didn’t need to be so bulky? What if, indeed, you made such a small machine that it could fit inside the mouth and angle outward, thereby reducing your body’s exposure?

This is just one of many possible applications of a new technology developed by an engineering team at the University of Missouri. The team has invented a “compact source of X-rays and other forms of radiation,” touts the university. The radiation source is small as a stick of gum, actually.

“Currently, X-ray machines are huge and require tremendous amounts of electricity,” said Scott Kovaleski, one of those Missouri researchers. He thinks a prototype of a handheld X-ray scanner using the team’s invention could be up and running inside of three years.

A handheld X-ray scanner opens up a new world of possibility, both in and out of the dentist’s chair. Take seaports, for instance. With handheld scanners, you could search cargo more easily and cheaply. Even extraterrestrial exploration stands to benefit. Traditional X-ray tech might be too energy consuming to embed on the next Mars rover. But with compact sensors, the equation looks different.

One of the most promising uses of the tech could be bringing new diagnostic services to rural, remote, or impoverished areas in the world, said Kovaleski. Who knew miniaturizing tech could be such a public health boon?

And how does the device work? It hinges on a crystal made from lithium niobate, and uses something called the piezoelectric effect to amplify voltage. “Piezoelectricity” means “electricity resulting from pressure,” and hinges on the weird fact that certain materials do just that–produce electricity under pressure (see “How Friction May Someday Charge Your Cell Phone”; “Piezoelectrics Come into Fashion”). In this tech’s case, merely inputting 10 volts of electricity can cause that lithium niobate crystal to output 100,000 volts in turn, claims the Missouri team.

Want to know more? Renew your subscription in IEEE Transaction on Plasma Science, where the team’s paper, “Investigation of the piezoelectric effect as a means to generate X-rays,” was published.

Oh, and if this all sounds familiar to you already, that’s because Star Trek, as in all things, got there first.

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Tagged: Energy, Materials

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