Japanese companies are working on new technologies that can improve food safety, ease pharmaceutical production and thwart terrorists and drug smugglers.
But two hurdles stand in the way: the enormous costs and the unknown effects on human health.
The technologies involve the use of terahertz waves, electromagnetic radiation in the frequency band from 0.1 to 10 terahertz, which lies in a transition zone between radio waves and light.
Terahertz waves can penetrate substances as X-rays do and identify their components and types in the same manner as infrared rays. However, terahertz waves can spot things that X-rays can’t, such as paper and plastic objects, and are more penetrative than infrared rays.
These waves are found in nature, but they have long remained underused because generating them requires expensive equipment or chemical agents.
Advances in terahertz wave research over the past decade or so were made after a U.S. company developed an inexpensive terahertz-wave generator that uses high-performance laser.
One possible application of the research concerns the pharmaceutical industry.
Pills are often coated so that they release their components after reaching the stomach or the bowels. But uneven coating is vulnerable to cracks.
A terahertz-wave analyzer has “broadened the range of research to develop drugs that are easier to take and easier to make,” said Wataru Momose, a senior researcher at an Astellas Pharma Inc. research institute in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture.
A worker at the institute placed a pill in an analyzer that uses terahertz waves. Five minutes later, a pattern of red and yellow appeared on a display to show the uneven thicknesses of the pill’s surface coating.
The analyzer was produced by Tokyo-based Advantest Corp., which manufactures semiconductor test systems. An Advantest official said the company has sold several dozen terahertz-wave analyzers since summer last year despite the expensive price tag of between 25 million and 35 million yen ($258,000 and 361,000) a unit.
“It’s our new, promising venture,” the official said.
BCC Research LLC, a U.S. research firm, expects the market for terahertz radiation devices to grow sevenfold from about 8 billion yen in 2011 to 57 billion yen by 2021.
Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) forecasts that figure to swell to 1 trillion yen by 2030.
Research is also under way to use terahertz waves to help discover cancer cells. Terahertz waves react strongly to water, and cancer cells are believed to contain more water than normal cells.
Ajinomoto Co. is studying methods to use terahertz waves to detect impurities, such as hair and insects, in condiment and packaged food products. X-ray screenings can spot metal fragments and glass shards but not hair.
“The new testing method could replace manual inspections,” an Ajinomoto official said.
In addition, applications are being sought to spot narcotics in paper envelopes or plastic explosives in luggage at airports.
Such technologies, however, could raise privacy concerns.
Terahertz waves are believed to be safer than X-rays, but it is not yet known if they are toxic to human health.
“Time is needed before practical applications can begin in earnest,” said Iwao Hosako of the NICT Terahertz Technology Research Center.