- since 1996 -
|NDT.net Issue - 2007-07 - NEWS |
|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.
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 boundaries.
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 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 for research.
A Multitude of
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
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 technology.
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