Inspired by Superman’s X‑Ray Vision, UTD Researchers Partner on Breakthrough Chip for Cell Phones

UT Dallas said that cellphones using the technology might one day be used to find studs, wooden beams, or wiring behind walls; cracks in pipes; or outlines of contents in envelopes and packages. The tech—based on technology nearly two decades in the making—could have medical applications as well.

One of Superman’s coolest powers is his X-ray vision, which enables him to see through walls and other objects to save the world.

That X-ray vision is the inspiration for researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas and Seoul National University, who have developed an imager chip that could be used in mobile devices so users can detect objects inside packages or behind walls.

“This technology is like Superman’s X-ray vision. Of course, we use signals at 200 gigahertz to 400 gigahertz instead of X-rays, which can be harmful,” Dr. Kenneth K. O, director of UTD’s Texas Analog Center of Excellence (TxACE) and the Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, said in a statement.

UTD said that chip-enabled cellphones might be used to find studs, wooden beams, or wiring behind walls; cracks in pipes; or outlines of contents in envelopes and packages. The university said the technology also could have medical applications.

Researchers, including electrical engineering graduate student Walter Sosa Portillo (left) and Dr. Kenneth K. O, have made advances to miniaturize an imager chip inspired by Superman’s X-ray vision for handheld mobile devices. [Photo: UT Dallas]

The university said researchers first demonstrated the imaging technology in a 2022 study.

The researchers’ latest paper, published in the March print edition of IEEE Transactions on Terahertz Science and Technology, shows how the teams solved one of their biggest challenges: making the technology small enough for handheld mobile devices while improving image quality.

How it works: Improving pixel performance ‘by 100 million times’

UTD said the research was supported by the Texas Instruments Foundational Technology Research Program on Millimeter Wave and High Frequency Microsystems and the Samsung Global Research Outreach Program.

“It took 15 years of research that improved pixel performance by 100 million times, combined with digital signal processing techniques, to make this imaging demonstration possible. This disruptive technology shows the potential capability of true THz imaging,” Dr. Brian Ginsburg, director of RF/mmW and high-speed research at TI’s Kilby Labs, said in a statement.

Infographic: UT Dallas

Keeping privacy issues in mind, UTD said the researchers designed the technology for use only at close range, about 1 inch from an object.

For example, O said if a thief tried to scan the contents of someone’s bag, the thief would need to be so close that the person would be aware of what they were doing.

UTD said the next iteration of the imager chip should be able to capture images up to 5 inches away and make it easier to see smaller objects.

The university said that the imager emits 300-GHz signals in the millimeter-wave band of electromagnetic frequencies between microwave and infrared. That’s safe for humans and the human eye cannot see in that range. A similar technology using microwaves is used in large, stationary passenger screeners in airports.

“We designed the chip without lenses or optics so that it could fit into a mobile device,” said Dr. Wooyeol Choi, assistant professor at Seoul National University and the corresponding author of the latest paper. “The pixels, which create images by detecting signals reflected from a target object, have the shape of a 0.5-mm square, about the size of a grain of sand.”

Nearly two decades in the making

UTD said the advances to miniaturize the imager chip for mobile devices are the result of almost two decades of research by O and his team of students, researchers, and collaborators through the TxACE at UT Dallas.

TxACE is supported by the Semiconductor Research Corp., TI, the UT System, and UT Dallas.

Electrical engineering graduate student and a study author Walter Sosa Portillo came to work in O’s lab as an undergraduate after learning about this imaging research.

“The first day I came to orientation, they talked about Dr. O’s research, and I thought it was really interesting and pretty cool to be able to see through things,” said Portillo, who is researching medical applications for the imager.

Additional co-authors of the study include first author Pranith Reddy Byreddy MS’16, PhD’22, now at Qualcomm Technologies Inc.; Yukun Zhu PhD’22, now at HiSilicon in China; electrical engineering doctoral student Suprovo Ghosh MS’19; Harshpreet Singh Bakshi MS’18, PhD’22, now at TI; electrical engineering doctoral student Jayson P. Van Marter BS’20; and Dr. Murat Torlak, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Get on the list.
Dallas Innovates, every day.

Sign up to keep your eye on what’s new and next in Dallas-Fort Worth, every day.

One quick signup, and you’re done.  
View previous emails.

R E A D   N E X T