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23 OCTOBER 2009
Terahertz Technology refers to the research and development of devices operat-
ing at terahertz (THz) frequencies, generally defined as 100GHz - 10THz. This
essentially unexplored region of the electromagnetic spectrum has received much
interest in recent years from both the scientific and corporate world because of
the unique properties of THz waves. These unique properties are proving to
be very beneficial for many scientific fields and very profitable for companies
developing the technology for commercial use. The ’THz gap’ has been studied
extensively since the 1980’s and many applications have been proposed partic-
ularly in recent years due to the rapid development of semiconductor materials,
laser technology and photonics [1]. This report will cover the current state of
THz technology based on available literature. Additionally, analysis of the be-
haviour of the radiation and the technical aspects of the devices will be used to
examine limitations on proposed applications and areas of potential research.

Technical Characteristics and Applications

THz waves are capable of penetrating many dielectric (non-conducting) mate-
rials opaque to visible light [2]. THz waves can pass through materials such as
cardboard, plastics and fabrics. Accordingly THz waves can be used to detect
concealed weapons (see Figure 1) and could replace conventional metal detectors
at airports and other places requiring such security. These penetration charac-
teristics have been exploited by many, including NASA which uses THz waves
to inspect the protective foam used in their space shuttles and identify the thick-
ness and any micro-structural variations [3]. It was imperfections in the foam
surrounding the fuel tank which led to the Columbia disaster, meaning advance-
ments in THz technology could save a lot of money and, most importantly, lives.

Figure 1: Hidden weapon detection with THz waves [4]

Another characteristic of THz waves is that they are non-ionising, meaning

that unlike X-rays they do no damage to human tissue or DNA. The company

TeraView [5] was the first to commercially exploit THz radiation, they produce
products that use spectroscopic imaging to characterise molecular structures [6]
and enable 3D imaging of structures and materials. THz waves are particularly
useful in diagnosis as they can pass through clothing and skin [7] and detect
abnormalities such as cancers and tumours.

Figure 2: Detection of a tumor, an application of TeraView research into dis-

tinguishing types of tissue. [8]

TeraView also produces an explosives detection system. THz spectroscopy

can be used to find the spectral features of a wide range of molecules [9], once
these features are known it is possible to use these features to identify molecules
remotely. Explosive detection systems which use this process could be placed
at airports and, using spectroscopy, remotely detect explosives (or any other
material of interest, drugs for example). Due to the penetrability of THz waves,
molecules can be detected through suitcases, boxes and other packing material.
Currently being developed is a diffuse reflection technique which could elimi-
nate the need for line of sight between the emitter and detector [10]. Also of
considerable importance is the safety of using this radiation around humans.
THz waves (meV photon energy) are non-ionising and so much safer than X-
rays (keV photon energy), however tests will need to be done before devices are
installed in public places such as airports.

THz waves experience relatively high attenuation in the Earth’s atmosphere

(particularly compared to microwaves which experience nearly no attenuation)
as the water molecules in the air readily absorb radiation at THz frequencies.
While it is not possible to use THz waves for long distance communication
on Earth (’last mile’ high-speed short-distance communications has been pro-
posed however), at higher altitudes transmission of THz waves becomes almost
lossless, making aircraft-to-aircraft, aircraft-to-satellite and satellite-to-satellite
communications a very real possibility [1].

It may seem that the high attenuation THz waves experience in the atmosphere
is a problem however the interaction of THz waves and the atmosphere can be

exploited with the right technology. A cities air quality, humidity, cloud cover
and atmospheric chemical make-up can all be monitored remotely, from the
ground or from a satellite [11]. The National Institute of Information and Com-
munications Technology (NICT, Japan) is currently conducting research into
remote sensing and is working towards a THz wave propagation model which
includes development of an atmospheric radiative transfer model [as above]. A
number of radiative transfer models exist in the microwave and infrared regions
however there are a number of discrepancies between these and laboratory ob-
servations of THz waves. The current models cannot account for some of the
absorption that occurs in the atmosphere (indicated by spectral lines) [12] and
it is currently unknown why this is the case. Anomalous far-wing absorption,
absorption by water vapor dimers or larger cluster and absorption by collisions
between atmospheric molecules have been proposed to explain this ’continuum
absorption’ [13][14][15].

History has shown that many advancements in technology have been due to
war. This may prove to be the case for THz technology as there are many
promising military applications of THz waves. Research projects funded by the
US Army National Ground Intelligence Center [16] have found that the radar
absorption coating on stealth aircraft is ineffective against THz waves and that
THz radar can detect hidden military targets, for example dug-in tanks (see
Figure 3) and land mines. Many other research and development programs are
currently underway. In June 2009, the US Office of Naval Research awarded
Raytheon a contract to develop a 100 kW experimental Free Electron Laser
(FEL) for missile defence which will operate at THz frequencies. Additionally,
in April 2009, the US Navy awarded Boeing a $163 M contract to develop an
FEL ’directed energy anti-missile weapon’. In May 2009, The Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Northrop Grumman Corporation
phase 1 of the $37-million Terahertz Electronics contract [17] which will involve
developing technology for the high speed integrated circuits that will be used in
THz communications and radar systems.

Figure 3: THz radar imaging of military targets [18].

Many devices exist for producing either continuous or pulsed THz waves. Since
the THz gap exists between the regions of microwaves and visible light, in de-
veloping devices for use in the THz range both electronic and photonic devices
have been used and modified. In general, electronic devices operate at the low
end and photonic devices at the high end of the THz region.

Types of sources include: electron beam sources - gyrotrons [19], Free Elec-
tron Lasers (FELs) [20] and Backward Wave Oscillators (BWOs) [21], Far In-
frared (FIR) pumped gas lasers - optically or electrically pumped CO2 lasers
[22], solid state sources - electrically or optically pumped solid state (ceram-
ics, glasses or crystals) lasers [23], semiconductor lasers - Quantum Cascade
Lasers(QCLs) [24] are most promising, parametric sources [25], Photomixers
[26] and frequency multipliers - typically a solid state laser driving a Planar-
Schottky diode frequency multiplier circuit [27] however frequencies are limited
to 2 THz [28], up to 2.5 THz has been produced with BWOs driving a chain
of frequency multipliers [29]. A number of these devices are shown in Figure 4
comparing their output power to their operation frequency. These are typical
numbers only and it should be noted that cooling plays a major role in the
output power.

Figure 4: Comparison of a number of continuous wave THz sources in terms of

their output power and operation frequency [30].

The most promising sources are FELs, pumped lasers and QCLs and details
of their operation will be covered here. Of course there are many other devices,
the list above is certainly not exhaustive. Unfortunately it is impossible to do
justice to all research being done in such a rapidly expanding field.

Figure 5: Setup of an undulator, as used in a free electron laser. The periodically
varying magnetic field forces the electron beam on an oscillatory path, which
leads to emission of radiation [31].

Free Electron Lasers [20] work by accelerating a beam of electrons to rela-

tivistic speed and sending them through a magnetic structure. The electrons
experience alternating magnetic fields causing them to oscillate and follow a
sinusoidal curve (see Figure 5). As the electrons oscillate they accelerate and
hence produce an electromagnetic wave. At the start of the tube the EM waves
are out of phase as the electrons are all accelerating at different times. However
when the EM waves are emitted they constructively interfere with electrons fur-
ther down the tube. This happens many times and causes electron ’bunching’,
where electrons will form groups. By the time they reach the end of the tube
they are emitting photons in phase. This produces coherent radiation [31] up
to kilowatt level power [20].

Perhaps the best feature of FELs is that they are widely tunable, from mi-
crowaves to X-rays [32]. The frequency is easily adjusted by either changing the
speed of the electrons before they enter the undulator or changing the strength
of the magnetic field [33].

A more widely used method of producing radiation at any frequency is the

pumped laser. Pumped lasers consist of a gain medium. The electrons in the
gain medium are ’pumped’ to a higher energy level. A decay is triggered and the
device emits radiation proportional to the energy gap that the electrons decay
across (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Transitions of electrons in the gas cavity of a pumped laser. A

metastable state is used to create population inversion and hence a coherent
emission of THz radiation [34].

In the case of a CO2 pumped gas laser, a CO2 laser is fired into a cavity
filled with a gas. This gas (the gain medium) then lases at THz frequencies [35].
The emitted frequency is dependent on the type of gas in the cavity. Because
of this, the device is not very tunable although limited tunable sources have
been demonstrated [36]. Output power is very limited and with a pump laser of
20-100 W, an output from the gas cavity of 1-20 mW can be expected although
a 2.5 THz 30 mW source has been demonstrated [22].

The last THz source to be discussed is the Quantum Cascade Laser (QCL).
QCLs, like FELs, are very tunable (typically 800 GHz-100 THz) however need
to operate at temperatures as low as 4 K [37] and have relatively low power out-
put [38]. QCLs work on inter-sub-band transitions of a semiconductor structure,
the structure is constructed so that adjacent materials have progressively lower
valence bands (as shown graphically in Figure 7). Their operation is relatively
simple: under the influence of an electric field an electron tunnels into a quan-
tum well, transitions down a sub-level in the quantum well and emits a photon.
The electron then tunnels into the adjacent well and the process continues. The
process is very efficient as each step produces more optical gain and multiple
photons are emitted per electron.

Figure 7: Gain region of a QCL, shows electron energy versus position in the
structure, the overall downward trend of energy towards the right-hand side is
caused by an applied electric field. [39]

Quantum Cascade Lasers are quite compact and have a very narrow linewidth
[39], making them particularly suitable for applications in spectroscopy. QCLs
are being developed that can operate at room temperature which will make
them even more commercially viable [40]. QCLs operating at room tempera-
ture have reached milliwatt output levels while liquid nitrogen cooled devices
have reached hundreds of milliwatts [41].

Current problems with sources include but are certainly not limited to:

1. High frequency roll off in traditional semiconductor sources due to reactive

parasitics and circuit transit times.
2. Domination of resistance at high frequencies produce a large amount of
signal losses.
3. Physical scaling of tube sources.

4. The need for large magnetic and electric fields and high current densities
in tube sources.
5. Cooling, cooling, cooling. Very few devices can operate reliably or contin-
uously at room temperature.

Sensors also play an important role in THz technology however they are
far more developed than sources at this time and so will not be discussed in
depth. The main method of sensing THz radiation is via thermal absorption,
which can be used to change resistivity of a device, or change the volume or
pressure of a gas, both of which can be measured. A photomixer can also be
used to detect THz waves by mixing them with a beam of known frequency, the
differences can be detected and the source beam decoded. Currently there are
near-quantum-limited detectors that can measure both broadband or extremely
narrowband signals up to or exceeding 1 THz [42].

The main problem with sensors is that the photon energy of THz radiation
(1.2-12.4 meV) is much lower than Earth’s background radiation (≈ 26 meV).
Therefore, high sensitive devices must use cryogenic cooling for operation in the
THz range [42]. There are also many other devices that fit into THz technology
such as high speed integrated circuits, for processing data before it gets to the
source and after it’s received by the sensor.

Terahertz Technology is already being marketed, mainly for medical and mili-
tary applications, and continuing advancements in the field will see many new
applications being realised and many industries being revolutionised (particu-
larly in terms of non-destructive testing). Technical difficulties are being over-
come literally as we speak and it will not be long before there are as little
problems with sources as there are with sensors. The most promising sources
currently are Free Electron Lasers, CO2 Lasers and Quantum Cascade Lasers,
which are already being used in the commercial environment. Only time will
tell what great opportunities lie in this underdeveloped region of the electro-
magnetic spectrum, the THz gap.

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