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NSF awards $675,000 to advance Ohio State terahertz research

Between the infrared and microwave sections of the electromagnetic spectrum, lies the terahertz window, a largely untapped portion of energy with the potential to reveal a variety of unknowns—from hidden weapons to the thickness of paint to next-generation Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis.

Faculty at The Ohio State University ElectroScience Laboratory (ESL) recently earned a total of $675,000 in research and commercialization support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further their terahertz sensor development.

Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Professor Kubilay Sertel won a three-year $450,000 NSF grant for his research proposal, “Compact Polarimetric THz Sensor for Reflectometric Imaging.”

Sertel’s commercialization efforts also received the NSF Small Business Innovation Research grant for $225,000 to develop automated and non-invasive testing of high frequency integrated circuits, spearheaded by his startup TeraProbes, Inc.

Kubilay Sertel, Nandhini Srinivasan and Niru Nahar

Regarding these separate research efforts, Sertel said the NSF funding will help his team advance polarimetric terahertz-frequency next-generation imaging by developing a compact and portable sensor for studying brain tissue, ultimately demonstrating an alternative imaging modality for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.

Sertel’s team previously validated the need for such a polarimetric sensor through the work of ESL Graduate Research Associate Nandhini Srinivasan, whose proposal won third-place at the 2017 IEEE APS/URSI San Diego Symposium Student Paper Contest.

“We conducted the initial study to validate the hypothesis that the elongated structures in the human brain are actually polarization sensitive. Now, we have to make a stand-alone sensor that can differentiate both polarizations, simultaneously, in a terahertz signal reflecting from a human tissue sample,” Sertel said. “That’s the ultimate goal, to identify the features and boundaries between the different components of human tissue.”

Joining Sertel on this team is Ohio State Research Assistant Professor Niru Nahar and former Ohio State pathology professor Norman Lehman, now at the University of Louisville, where he will continue his collaboration.

“Dr. Lehman is going to provide the tissue samples and the associated microscope images,” Sertel said.

The team proposes creating a fully-polarimetric THz sensor and associated THz-spectroscopic polarimetry tools, which they say will “usher in new sensing and imaging applications in the much-needed areas of biomedical sensing, chemical spectroscopy and pharmaceutical evaluation, to name a few."

Once it is fully developed, Sertel said, an entirely new modality for THz spectroscopy and imaging is possible, for the first time, by harnessing the polarization properties of THz waves. The proposed work creates a laboratory-scale spectroscopy tool that can be incorporated into the academic curriculum to serve as a hands-on experimentation and training testbed to inspire students to pursue an education in the STEM fields.

Meanwhile, the NSF Small Business Innovation Research grant is scheduled to assist Sertel’s commercialization activity for TeraProbes, Inc., as it seeks to transform the current electronics chip testing industry, opening up new research areas and offering an immediate benefit to the entire semiconductor industry.

The first phase of NSF funding for TeraProbes, Sertel said, includes the creation of a Business Development Commercialization Strategy, as well as research to create the fully-automated version of TeraProbes’ non-contact probe station.

TeraProbes, Inc. fabricated three probe stations through a seed grant from the State of Ohio Department of Development. These units were transferred to other universities, such as Arizona State University and are on loan to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in Boulder, CO.

“Each unit is being evaluated in the industry to see how it impacts key issues in their work,” Sertel said.

The NSF SBIR funding also enables TeraProbes to hire two new team members and work with processional design engineering teams at the Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence (CDME)—a manufacturing, engineering and commercialization center at Ohio State.

Contributed by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering