How tiny imaging systems could impact patient care

Scientists have found a way to shrink immense imaging systems down to the size of a pencil eraser, a breakthrough they hope could eventually have a huge impact on patient care.

University of Pennsylvania researchers said they have recently developed a new microwave imager chip they hope will lead to the creation of low-cost, handheld imaging devices. Such microwave devices can travel through opaque objects and would prove useful in detecting tumors through body tissue, investigators noted in the latest issue of Optica.

“Today’s practical microwave imagers are bench-top systems that are bulky and expensive,” Firooz Aflatouni, lead researcher and an assistant professor of electrical and systems engineering, said in a prepared statement. “Our new near-field imager uses optical, rather than electronic, devices to process the microwave signal. This enabled us to make a chip-based imager similar to the optical camera chips in many smartphones.”

Authors detailed how they used a standard semiconductor fabrication process to make a microwave imager chip that contains more than 1,000 photonic components. It measures just 2 millimeters on each side, about the size of half a pencil eraser.

Aflatouni and colleagues believe the eventual development of handheld, near-field microwave imagers could prove useful to radiologists in tasks such as imaging the brain or monitoring heart motion.

Penn scientists have already tested the technology to image small objects with metallic surfaces. Up next, they plan to increase the number of pixels and use shorter microwave pulses to hopefully achieve higher resolution images.