Microwaves could provide a safe new way of finding hidden weapons and buried mines, thanks to UK research. Scientists are developing a microwave-based technique that can generate high-quality images of hidden objects. The research may lead to the use of microwaves as a safer alternative to X-rays in airport security checks, building searches, landmine detection and other applications.
This leading-edge work is being carried out by a team of engineers and physicists at Northumbria University, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Detection systems used in the fight against terrorism and other crimes rely on X-ray radiation to penetrate materials and build up an image of what is underneath. However, because X-rays can damage living tissue, considerable precautions need to be taken when using these systems. Microwave radiation, on the other hand, is harmless to humans and has the potential to produce 3-dimensional holographic images of objects concealed from view.
Although technically viable, microwave imaging systems will only see widespread deployment if they can produce results quickly and cheaply. To tackle this key barrier, the innovative technique being developed by the new EPSRC-funded project will comprise a two-stage process. The first involves the use of conventional detectors to measure the 2-dimensional pattern made by the scattering of microwaves when they come into contact with a hidden object. The second stage takes this data and uses computer software to construct a 3-dimensional image from it. The technique aims to avoid the need to use complex "one-stage" equipment that produces images slowly and at considerable expense.
Dr. David Smith, from the University's School of Engineering and Technology, is leading the project. He says: "The technology could be very versatile and suited to use in security, medical and industrial applications. Although we are just at the beginning of this research, our ultimate aim is to offer an alternative, fast 3D microwave imaging technique which can be used across a wide range of disciplines".
The research initiative, "A Novel Microwave Holographic Technique for 3D Imaging Applications", will last 23 months and receive EPSRC funding of more than £89,000.
To explore the medical potential of microwave imaging, the Wellcome Trust has awarded the research team a grant of £125,000.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and from mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements in everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk.
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