|Brian Schulkins Mini-Z spots cracks in space
shuttle foam, detects tumors in tissue
Troy, N.Y. T-rays have been touted as the next
breakthrough in sensing and imaging, but the need for bulky
equipment has been an obstacle to reaching the fields
potential. Enter Brian Schulkin, winner of the first-ever
$30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize. Schulkin has
invented an ultralight, handheld terahertz spectrometer an
advance that could help catapult T-ray technology from the lab
bench to the marketplace.
Brian Schulkin, a doctoral student in
physics, is the winner of the first-ever $30,000
Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize. He has invented an
ultralight, handheld terahertz spectrometer called the
Credit: Rensselaer/Kris Qua
Biography of Brian
Schulkins Mini-Z is dramatically smaller and lighter than
any previous terahertz device, and it already has proven its
ability to detect cracks in space shuttle foam, image tumors in
breast tissue, and spot counterfeit watermarks on paper
currency. The system, which weighs less than five pounds and
fits snugly in a briefcase, could open the door to a wide range
of applications in homeland security, biomedical imaging, and
nondestructive testing of industrial components.
Schulkin, a doctoral student in physics at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute, is the first recipient of the $30,000
Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize. The award is given to a
Rensselaer senior or graduate student who has created or
improved a product or process, applied a technology in a new
way, or otherwise demonstrated remarkable inventiveness.
Discovery and innovation are the sparks that drive
the global economy and enhance quality of life. The
Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize is designed to inspire and
reward those who push the boundaries of imagination, and do the
creative work to break new ground, said Rensselaer President
Shirley Ann Jackson. Brian Schulkin embodies that spirit of
innovation, discovery, and excellence. We celebrate his
ingenuity and commitment. We applaud him and all of our
students who participated in this inaugural competition, and we
encourage them to keep exploring and to keep pushing the
For photos and video of the winner, as well as a Webcast of
the announcement ceremony, please visit: www.rpi.edu/lemelson.
The Next Wave in Sensing and Imaging
T-rays are based on the terahertz region of the
electromagnetic spectrum, which is defined by frequencies from
0.1 to 10 terahertz just between infrared light and microwave
radiation. Terahertz waves are the last window in the
electromagnetic spectrum to be exploited by scientists,
T-rays are useful for imaging defects within materials
without destroying the objects or even removing them from their
setting, and they offer major advantages over other techniques,
according to Schulkin. They can penetrate many dry,
non-metallic materials with better resolution than microwave
radiation; they dont pose the same health risks as X-rays; and
unlike ultrasound, terahertz waves can provide images without
contacting an object.
And T-ray systems offer more than just images: they can
provide valuable spectroscopic information about the
composition of a material, especially in chemical and
biological species. Scientists have been exploring the
terahertz region for more than two decades, but one of the main
obstacles has been the size and weight of T-ray devices.
Conventional systems are tied down to the bench, Schulkin
said. They are incredibly heavy, not portable, and require
high-powered lasers, which are both expensive and large.
The Mini-Z, however, is about the size of a laptop computer,
and it does not require any peripheral equipment. The first
time the Mini-Z was on display, the kinds of comments we got
were, Where is the rest of it? Schulkin said.
The device also provides real-time data with absolutely no
waiting, and its user-friendly design means people do not need
special training to operate it. Its a turnkey system all
you have to do is open the box, set it up, and turn it on,
Schulkin said. My vision for the Mini-Z is that it will be
standard equipment in offices around the world, or in the lab
A Multitude of
Schulkins patent-pending technology is available for
licensing, and his team has received interest from a number of
companies looking to commercialize the Mini-Z. The potential
applications for such a device are numerous: evaluating the
integrity of carbon fiber composites used in airplanes; imaging
tumors without the need for harmful radiation; detecting
explosives at airport security checkpoints; spotting landmines
from a distance; and seeing biological agents through a sealed
The spray-on foam insulation used in the space shuttle is an
ideal subject for terahertz imaging, Schulkin said. During the
STS-114 shuttle mission in July 2005, video analysis indicated
a piece of foam was lost from the bright orange, 15-story-tall
external fuel tank of Space Shuttle Discovery. The tanks
aluminum skin is covered with polyurethane-like foam averaging
an inch thick, which insulates the propellants, prevents ice
formation on its exterior, and protects its skin from heat
during flight, according to NASA.
Schulkin and his colleagues have conducted tests with foam
samples provided by NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center and
fuel-tank manufacturer Lockheed Martin Space Systems. To help
prove the viability of terahertz imaging, the team purposely
embedded defects in specially prepared foam samples, and then
they used T-rays to spot them. In one test, a total of eight
man-made defects of various sizes were scattered throughout the
sample and successfully detected.
A prototype of the Mini-Z is being evaluated by NASAs
External Tank Project Office, which is seeking new methods to
either complement or replace those it currently uses in
nondestructive evaluation. Schulkins technology will be put in
a run-off against several other technologies that will help
NASA determine which to designate as space certified,
allowing them to become part of NASAs regular manufacturing
and inspection process.
A Shining Star on the Research Stage
Not only does Brian have an impressive grasp of
theoretical concepts, but he also has the rare ability to
combine this understanding with solid engineering principles,
said Alan Cramb, dean of the School of Engineering at
Rensselaer. His innovative spirit and creative spark are an
inspiration to us all, and we are fortunate to have the
Lemelson-MIT Program to recognize innovative students
Schulkin works under the guidance of Xi-Cheng Zhang, the J.
Erik Jonsson 22 Distinguished Professor of Science and
director of the Center for Terahertz Research at Rensselaer.
Brians innovative approach combined the integration of
materials, optics, and electronics expertise to realize a
quantum leap in robustness, while reducing the size and weight
of the system by an order of magnitude, Zhang said. His
miniature terahertz spectrometer project, after only one years
worth of research and development, has become the shining star
on our research stage.
At the Center for Terahertz Research, more than 30
scientists actively conduct research and development in
terahertz wave science and technology. Scientists and engineers
from more than 100 universities, companies, medical schools,
and clinics have visited Rensselaers terahertz facilities, and
the team has helped scientists from 25 countries learn to use
The Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize is funded through a
partnership with the Lemelson-MIT Program, which has awarded
the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize to outstanding student
inventors at MIT since 1995.
Nathan Ball, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the 2007 winner
of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Ball received
the award for life-saving inventions including the ATLAS
Powered Rope Ascender, a portable, battery-powered
device that can lift a 250-pound load hundreds of feet
into the air in a matter of seconds.
This year the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
also joined Rensselaer as a new partner institution with the
announcement of the $30,000 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize.
Michael Callahan is the inaugural winner of the Lemelson-
Illinois Student Prize. He is a graduate student in Industrial
and Enterprise Systems Engineering who has invented a method to
intercept neurological signals near the source of vocal
production and convert the signals into speech. He hopes to
make it possible for people with limited speech or movement
abilities to communicate.
On May 3, the winners of all three student prizes will join
together for a panel discussion at the Museum of Science,
Boston. The panel is open to the public and included in the
Exhibit Halls admission.
About the Lemelson-MIT Program
The Lemelson-MIT Program recognizes outstanding
inventors, encourages sustainable new solutions to real-world
problems, and enables and inspires young people to pursue
creative lives and careers through invention. Jerome H.
Lemelson, one of the worlds most prolific inventors, and his
wife, Dorothy, founded the nonprofit Lemelson-MIT Program at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994. More
information is online at http://web.mit.edu/invent/.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is the nations oldest technological university. The university offers bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in engineering, the sciences, information technology, architecture, management, and the humanities and social sciences. Institute programs serve undergraduates, graduate students, and working professionals around the world. Rensselaer faculty are known for pre-eminence in research conducted in a wide range of fields, with particular emphasis in biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, and the media arts and technology. The Institute is well known for its success in the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace so that new discoveries and inventions benefit human life, protect the environment, and strengthen economic development.