Star Trek's Tricorder Medical Scanner May Become Reality, Thanks To Nanotechnology Breakthrough

Trekkies, take heart. A scientific breakthrough involving a form of infrared radiation known as terahertz (THz) waves could lead to handheld medical scanners reminiscent of the "tricorder" featured on the original Star Trek television series.

What's the breakthrough? Using nanotechnology, physicists in London and Singapore found a way to make a beam of the"T-rays"--which are now used in full-body airport security scanners--stronger and more directional. The advance, which was described in a recent issue of the journal Nature Photonics, could lead to T-ray scanning devices that are smaller and more portable than existing devices.

"T-rays promise to revolutionize medical scanning to make it faster and more convenient, potentially relieving patients from the inconvenience of complicated diagnostic procedures and the stress of waiting for accurate results, one of the scientists behind the breakthrough, Stefan Maier, a professor of physics at Imperial College London, said in a written statement.

Like a tricorder, the T-ray scanners envisioned by the researchers would sense, compute, and transmit diagnostic data. For example, the scanners would be able to check DNA and detect tumors noninvasively and on the spot.

The T-ray imaging devices now available are very costly and produce only weak signals. But the researchers found that they could amplify a beam of T-rays with the help of a minute electronic structure they called a "nano-antenna." When they shone light of various wavelengths on it, it produced the breakthrough beam.

The real-world tricorder hasn't arrived just yet, of course. But when it does, its creators could be in line for a windfall. On Jan. 12, the X Prize Foundation announced that it is offering a $10 million prize to anyone who creates such a device.

"There is a dire need to improve access to healthcare globally and provide consumers with an opportunity to be active participants in their own health," Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, CEO and chairman of the foundation, said in a written statement. He added that the technology would "empower the consumer with the ability to decide when, where, and how to seek health information and care."

What if needed medical care is nowhere near? Maybe someone will come up with a real-world Star Trek transporter.