Researchers have invented a compact source of X-rays and other forms of radiation that could fit in the palms of the hand.
The radiation source, which is the size of a stick of gum, could be used to create inexpensive and portable X-ray scanners for use by doctors.
"Currently, X-ray machines are huge and require tremendous amounts of electricity," Scott Kovaleski, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at MU said.
"In approximately three years, we could have a prototype hand-held X-ray scanner using our invention. The cell-phone-sized device could improve medical services in remote and impoverished regions and reduce health care expenses everywhere," he added.
Kovaleski suggested other uses for the device. In dentists' offices, the tiny X-ray generators could be used to take images from the inside of the mouth shooting the rays outward, reducing radiation exposure to the rest of the patients' heads. At ports and border crossings, portable scanners could search cargoes for contraband, which would both reduce costs and improve security. Interplanetary probes, like the Curiosity rover, could be equipped with the compact sensors, which otherwise would require too much energy.
The accelerator developed by Kovaleski's team could be used to create other forms of radiation in addition to X-rays. For example, the invention could replace the radioactive materials, called radioisotopes, used in drilling for oil as well as other industrial and scientific operations. Kovaleski's invention could replace radioisotopes with a safer source of radiation that could be turned off in case of emergency.
"Our device is perfectly harmless until energized, and even then it causes relatively low exposures to radiation," Kovaleski said.
"We have never really had the ability to design devices around a radioisotope with an on-off switch. The potential for innovation is very exciting," he added.
The research is published as "Investigation of the Piezoelectric Effect as a Means to Generate X-Rays" in the journal IEEE Transaction on Plasma Science.