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A patent-pending device developed by a U of M engineering student may help in the fight against terrorism and improve airport security.

By Sara Hoover

At one time, only Superman possessed x-ray vision, but today the Man of Steel’s powers are becoming more widely available. Of course, still only to be used for the benefit of humanity.

Electrical engineering doctoral student Orges Furxhi has built a device, known as a spatially selective mask, that forms real-time images in terahertz or sub-millimeter waves. These waves can penetrate through man-made materials such as clothing to find concealed weapons or harmful chemicals like explosives. While Furxhi is not the first to create a device that has the ability to see through objects or material, his achieves aspects that others do not.

Furxhi’s dissertation is streamlining the x-ray vision process to be simpler, cost-effective and in real-time. His contribution of a spinning disc imager was key.

“The scanning is done by the spinning disc, which contains holes,” says Furxhi (MS ’07). “The plurality of the holes allows energy to go through and be measured. The holes scan the image and after we collect the measurement data, we can reconstruct the image. It helps in two aspects: the multi-holes make (the device) smaller and also allow more energy to go through. We can reconstruct the image very quickly, so image reconstruction is practically in real time.”

What can be detected depends on the frequency, but at sub- millimeter wave frequencies, the device can identify explosives and metal, all the while seeing through man-made material like cloth.

The spinning disc in action,   which will ultimately help detect concealed   weapons or guide helicopters to safety by   seeing through kicked up dust and debris.
The spinning disc in action, which will ultimately help detect concealed weapons or guide helicopters to safety by seeing through kicked up dust and debris.
One capability is standoff imaging — the ability to detect something from a distance. The military could use it to detect IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or hidden explosives, and bombs hidden on a person’s body. Vehicles with the device would be able to detect explosives placed on the ground as well as wires, so soldiers would be able to stop beforehand to investigate. Airport security or places where large groups of people are going is another purpose. This type of device would not require each person to go through the same portal, which is the current standard.

Another application is to help helicopter pilots see through the dust that’s lifted up when helicopters are trying to land, known as the brownout condition. With the pilot’s view obstructed, the helicopter can crash. These frequencies allow the pilot to see through the dust to where he’s landing.

The project began in 2006 when Dr. Eddie Jacobs, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Herff College of Engineering, asked Furxhi to figure out why previous sensor research didn’t work.

“I was involved in a DARPA-sponsored (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program to develop terahertz and sub-millimeter sensors for the detection of explosives and weapons,” says Jacobs. “I stumbled across some research that had been done back in the early ’70s that seemed applicable to this problem. I asked Orges to take a look and implement it. He easily concluded it wasn’t a terribly practical way of doing things. In the process, he suggested several improvements that could be made to the system, which could make it very practical. That started what he’s done now, which led to the University applying for patents.”

In its final form, the device will make an image on a computer monitor of whatever is in the field of view, much like a digital camera. The device will scan the body rapidly and take frames and look like a normal video on a TV screen. Jacobs believes they’re a year from the first images.

The device is patent-pending and caught the attention of the corporation Princeton Nanotechnologies Systems while Furxhi and Jacobs were doing a conference presentation in 2007.

“They have an option to license the patent on the condition they will submit grants to further develop this technology,” says Furxhi. “So whenever they apply for a grant that could benefit from this technology, they are to use this device as part of their overall larger device. When they do that, they have to contract us to do the work. That’s where we’re hoping to get some funding in the next year or so.”

Doctoral student Orges Furxhi   with his prototype device, which can see   through man-made material such as cloth to   detect metal or chemical explosives.
Doctoral student Orges Furxhi with his prototype device, which can see through man-made material such as cloth to detect metal or chemical explosives.

The partnership is beneficial for the project, but also for the University as a whole.

“Companies like that have options surrounding them as far as university partners,” says Kevin Boggs, director of technology transfer and research development in the FedEx Institute of Technology. “When they choose to get on an airplane and go anywhere, we’re thrilled that it’s us instead of one of the universities closer to them. Having those companies say to the world, ‘We’re benefiting from a partnership with the University of Memphis,’ is a great thing.”

The University has also been contracted by the corporate partner to work on the optics of a terahertz spectrometer device they’re developing. Currently, samples need to be placed in front of the spectrometer for it to identify the chemical signatures. With Furxhi’s help, the range of detection will be expanded and the device can be used at a distance and pointed at a building, for example. This modification would give those in the field the ability to quickly determine whether explosive materials are detected in a targeted area or not. He also plans to incorporate his spinning disc imager into the device so material will not only be identified, but also form an image.

The ability to form an image on these different devices raises the question of privacy — one Furxhi and Jacobs aren’t ready to answer.

“What we want to do is see through (material), and then others will have to worry about if they should or shouldn’t see,” says Furxhi.

“You will be seen naked. That’s an issue. It’s not one I’m prepared to solve. It’s something that we as a nation will have to decide,” adds Jacobs. “Is it so important that we keep people from getting on planes with bombs that we forego that particular aspect of personal privacy, at least to get on airplanes, which in almost all cases is an optional activity? I think it will get decided in the courts or by law.”

Jacobs points out there are two types of applications for this technology. One is making an image to look for objects through material, like clothing. Another is to find objects of interest and figure out whether they are explosive or not. Common plastic explosives have different colors of terahertz light, giving them unique spectral signatures. Terahertz waves can be used to recognize whether something is explosive or non-explosive. The second application — looking at objects in light spectrums — doesn’t have the privacy issues surrounding it.

While the privacy issues are a potential concern, there are no known harmful health effects associated with the imaging, an advantage that would make it safer than subjecting people to other types of scans. This type of imaging is non-ionizing, meaning it does not cause cell damage whereas ionizing imaging, like x-rays, do and can put people at risk of cancer.

The research will benefit the community at large, but is a learning opportunity as well.

“It’s given me experience in this field,” say Furxhi, who never worked on a project like this before. “If you want to put together a device in this field, you have to work with a whole lot of different people. I’ve had to learn optics, electromagnetic theory, electronics, mechanics, how to make things balance and machine work on how to build things.”

Those weren’t the only skills he learned either.

“We are training engineers,” says Jacobs. “Their marketability in our profession boils down to experience and working on a practical project that has real-world benefits. The big plus here is not only did we solve a very practical engineering problem, we were able to obtain something unique and patentable and so Orges has had the experience of going through the patent process. He’s also been working with the commercial interests in setting up the contractual arrangements between us and the University. All that is going to make him a much more marketable engineer.”

Originally from Albania, Furxhi, 27, came to Memphis his senior year of high school on an exchange program and graduated from Collierville High School.

“I was very, very lucky to come here because I’ve been funded ever since I started at (the U of M). I’ve been teaching. The department’s been very supportive.”

The impact on security measures is the creation of a device that is inexpensive, easy to manufacture, “doesn’t require lots of highly skilled engineering and will perform the task that we want it to perform,” according to Jacobs.

“It’s a great example of pure science and engineering turning into something that can really make, starting with soldiers and then others, safer,” says Boggs. “It was a creative leap apparently on Orges’ part on this device. I don’t know how he did it. I think working hard, being creative, taking your ideas seriously are what it takes for these things to happen.”

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