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The UC3M and the SENER Foundation research advanced technology for millimetre and sub-millimetre wave detection


The Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and the SENER Foundation have signed a collaboration agreement to develop a room temperature photon counting sensor (without the need for cryopreservation) for measuring extremely weak millimetre and sub-millimetre waves. This technology could have many applications such as improving skin cancer detection, climate change prediction and in research to discover the origin of the universe.

The detection and generation of radiation in the millimetre and sub-millimetre wave band (from 30 Ghz to 800 Ghz) is very complicated using the current techniques. Nowadays, the closest techniques to this range of frequencies are microwave and optic techniques. For microwave technology the frequencies are very high; on the other hand, the low energy that can be detected in this range pushes the provisions of optic technology performance to the limit. Therefore, developing a technology that covers the needs of the millimetre and sub-millimetre wave band is of vital importance in many scientific and technological fields. 

All the experiments carried out are based on sensors that should be cooled, almost reaching the lowest reachable temperature of -273ºC. These sensor cooling systems make the production of sensors that carry out these experiments extremely complicated both technologically and in terms of costs. “The innovation of this research resides in the fact that there is no need for cryogenic conditions and work at room temperature is possible, so that it allows us to create a small and light signal sensor (the dimensions of which may be similar to those of a conventional smartphone) which makes its use easier in applications for which the current technology is unfeasible or exponentially increases the complexity and cost, such as in space probes for observing the Earth, of astronomical sources or imaging equipment for disease diagnosis”, explain the researchers who will undertake the project in the UC3M’s Signal Theory and Communications Department.  

The agreement will last for three years. After the signing of the agreement, the Vice President for Science Policy of the UC3M, Juan José Vaquero, thanked the SENER Foundation for its support of this project and highlighted "the importance of creating links between universities and companies to promote an industrial network in which technology transfer is transversal in its applications, as well as an option to retain the talent of our young people in Spain". On his part, the President of the SENER Foundation and Vice President of SENER, Andrés Sendagorta, stated that "the support of this research project by the SENER Foundation is a very clear materialization of its foundational objectives, of the search for scientific knowledge and its application to improve people's lives. Furthermore, it is a way of promoting the relationship with the University, in order to advance in a joint work in effective and efficient projects". 

Applications of the technology

The device resulting from this research could be applied in three main areas; biomedicine, climate change and weather prediction and astronomy and cosmology. In the area of biomedicine, it could be used for analysing living tissues, in a non-invasive and innocuous way, to detect cancerous or potentially cancerous cells through imaging. This could be translated into a simple, painless and early method of skin cancer detection (something fundamental in the prognosis of this type of illness). Likewise, this technology could be used for controlling and monitoring people with diabetes, in the early diagnosis known as “diabetic foot”.

Regarding the study of climate change and the prediction of natural disasters, it will allow us to create observational images of Earth from which we can learn about certain meteorological phenomena (such as storms and explosive cyclogenesis), in order to obtain more information regarding these occurrences and with an earlier warning. This will allow meteorologists to make better predictions of the formation and behaviour of atmospheric phenomena, establish better and more reliable prediction models and anticipate their effects. 

In the field of astronomy and cosmology, experts require extremely sensitive signal sensors that capture very weak signals, such as those that come from the hypothetical Big Bang and that can be used to obtain more information about the origin of the universe. Nowadays we have sensors that detect these types of signals, but with certain limitations: they use very complicated, cumbersome and expensive technology; in addition, they have to operate in cryogenical conditions so that the signal is not contaminated by other sources such as our own galaxy (generally known as foreground emissions). This new device would allow these weak signals to be detected, in many cases imperceptible for conventional sensors and, in addition, do so while eliminating the difficulties raised by cryonics, both for its use on earth and for use during space missions.