The Truth About Terahertz

Anyone hoping to exploit this promising region of the electromagnetic spectrum must confront its very daunting physics

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opening illustration for truth about terahertz
Illustration: Chad Hagen

Wirelessly transfer huge files in the blink of an eye! Detect bombs, poison gas clouds, and concealed weapons from afar! Peer through walls with T-ray vision! You can do it all with terahertz technology—or so you might believe after perusing popular accounts of the subject.

The truth is a bit more nuanced. The terahertz regime is that promising yet vexing slice of the electromagnetic spectrum that lies between the microwave and the optical, corresponding to frequencies of about 300 billion hertz to 10 trillion hertz (or if you prefer, wavelengths of 1 millimeter down to 30 micrometers). This radiation does have some uniquely attractive qualities: For example, it can yield extremely high-resolution images and move vast amounts of data quickly. And yet it is nonionizing, meaning its photons are not energetic enough to knock electrons off atoms and molecules in human tissue, which could trigger harmful chemical reactions. The waves also stimulate molecular and electronic motions in many materials—reflecting off some, propagating through others, and being absorbed by the rest. These features have been exploited in laboratory demonstrations to identify explosives, reveal hidden weapons, check for defects in tiles on the space shuttle, and screen for skin cancer and tooth decay.

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