Crystal power could shrink X-ray scanners

U. MISSOURI (US) — A compact source of radiation about the size of a stick of gum could one day be used to create inexpensive portable X-ray scanners.

“Currently, X-ray machines are huge and require tremendous amounts of electricity,” says Scott Kovaleski, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Missouri.

“In approximately three years, we could have a prototype hand-held X-ray scanner using our invention. The cell-phone-sized device could improve medical services in remote and impoverished regions and reduce health care expenses everywhere.”

As reported in the journal IEEE Transaction on Plasma Science, the device uses a crystal to produce more than 100,000 volts of electricity from only 10 volts of electrical input with low power consumption. Having such a low need for power could allow the crystal to be fueled by batteries.


The crystal, made from a material called lithium niobate, uses the piezoelectric effect to amplify the input voltage. With piezoelectricity, certain materials produce an electric charge when the material is under stress.

Other uses for the device may include dentists’ offices, where the tiny X-ray generators could be used to take images from the inside of the mouth shooting the rays outward, reducing radiation exposure.

At ports and border crossings, portable scanners could search cargo for contraband.

Interplanetary probes, like the Curiosity rover on Mars, could be equipped with the compact sensors, which otherwise would require too much energy.

The accelerator could be used to create other forms of radiation in addition to X-rays. For example, it could replace radioisotopes that are used in drilling for oil with a safer source of radiation that could be turned off in case of emergency.

“Our device is perfectly harmless until energized, and even then it causes relatively low exposures to radiation,” Kovaleski says. “We have never really had the ability to design devices around a radioisotope with an on-off switch. The potential for innovation is very exciting.”

Source: University of Missouri