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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 huge variety of unknowns – from people carrying hidden weapons, to the thickness of paint, and next-generation Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis.

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

Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Professor Kubilay Sertel won a three-year $450,000 NSF grant with his related research proposal, “Compact Polarimetric THz Sensor for Reflectometric Imaging.” The grant comes via the NSF Division of Electrical, Communication and Cyber Systems.

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

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.

According to Marie Freebody, contributing editor of Photonics.com, terahertz sensors could expose a vast number of hidden secrets in imaging.

“Despite its vast potential … there is one thing that still eludes terahertz waves — the discovery of the killer application that will see market demand explode and subsequently drive the investment and research that the field so badly needs to progress,” she wrote.

Sertel’s team previously worked to validate 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 research proposal further details the technological advancements planned for the NSF funding.

“Polarimetric radars keep us safe from intruders, and optical ellipsometers are routinely used in many areas of solid state materials engineering, including the multi-billion-dollar semiconductor industry. The fully-polarimetric THz sensor and the associated THz-spectroscopic polarimetry tools proposed here 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," the abstract explains.

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, readily incorporated into the academic curriculum, providing a hands-on experimentation and training testbed to inspire students toward an education in 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 the TeraProbes’ non-contact probe station.

“We just completed the Boot Camp part of the NSF funding, similar to the NSF ICorps program,” Sertel said. “We continue to receive expert support from seasoned business mentors who walk us through the whole customer discover business plan development market assessment side of things.”

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 Ohio State’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence (CDME) – a manufacturing, engineering, and commercialization center at the Ohio State, led by former business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“We are excited to work with TeraProbes, Inc. on the development and commercialization of this novel technology and feel it could significantly disrupt the current method of testing and characterization of integrated circuits,” Eric Wagner said, a Collaboration Manager at CDME.

To learn more about the NSF SBIR/STTR program, visit: www.nsf.gov/SBIR