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June 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

Today, the ability to see objects that give off heat, or infrared (IR) energy, is reserved for those with deep pocketbooks. The versatile technology has numerous military, medical, environmental and industrial applications, but these come with a high price tag. Now a new lower-cost IR technology invented at NRC could bring IR technology to a much wider audience — providing increased security, protecting the environment and improving the health of Canadians.

Infrared Imaging using new technology
Infrared Imaging using new technology

The NRC Institute for Microstructural Sciences (NRC-IMS) team developing the IR technology recently promoted their invention at the World's Best Technologies Showcase in Arlington, Texas, where they looked for a partner to take their innovation from prototype to commercial product. The WBT is a venue for showcasing the undiscovered technologies emerging from top universities and government labs around the globe.

Existing advanced IR imaging technologies — such as those used in military aircraft — are based on a design that's relatively difficult to manufacture, making them quite expensive. In these devices, each array, or imaging area, of the IR sensor is attached to a silicon circuit. It's these circuits that analyze the incoming IR signals and convert them into the pixels that make up an image.

"The high cost of infrared imaging technologies is the main factor limiting their wider use. We've developed a way to mass produce IR imaging devices and thus significantly lower their cost, something that will create new markets for the technology," says Dr. H.C. Liu, leader of NRC-IMS' Terahertz and Imaging Group, and the lead researcher in developing this groundbreaking IR technology. The team has produced a functional desktop prototype of the technology, and holds seven related patents.

The NRC-IMS infrared imaging technology achieves its efficiencies by ingeniously marrying simpler proven technologies, thus reducing the complexity of the manufacturing process.

Current working prototype of the imaging system
Current working prototype of the imaging system

"It's all about device integration," says Dr. Liu, who's been working on the project since 1999.

The core innovation in the NRC-IMS device is connecting the IR detector to light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Rather than requiring a multitude of silicon circuits to turn the IR signal into pixels, the signal is converted as a whole into visible light using the LEDs. This literally turns "invisible" IR energy into visible light. The visible light is then recorded and turned into an image using a charged coupled device (CCD) — the same kind of off-the-shelf CCD technology used in digital cameras and camcorders.

The NRC-IMS technology is cheaper and easier to manufacture because its IR detection is based on gallium arsenide wafers. Often referred to as III-V (three-five) technology, these are commonly used in the telecommunications industry. They are much easier and cheaper to manufacture than the mercury-cadmium-telluride wafers used in existing IR devices.

At present, IR imaging technology is best known for its use in military applications, ranging from heat seeking missiles to IR-based target detection systems used in fighter aircraft and tanks. But Liu, and NRC-IMS business development officer Eddy Guzzo, believe there are many more potential applications for lower-cost IR-imaging devices, ranging from remote sensing of chemicals to medical diagnostics. Such a device could be used to reduce waste in natural gas pipelines.

Wavelength-image converter from long wavelength thermal infrared to near infrared.
Wavelength-image converter from long wavelength thermal infrared to near infrared.

"A huge amount of natural gas is lost each year through leaks in the thousands of kilometres of pipelines we have in North America. This represents a major financial loss for the companies involved, one that could be reduced by using IR technology to spot leaks," says Guzzo. "In addition, the main component of natural gas, methane, is 20 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas."

Every chemical, whether natural gas or a chemical warfare agent, has an "IR fingerprint" visible at a characteristic wavelength of IR energy that makes it distinguishable from its surroundings. In biomedical imaging, IR can be used to detect tiny differences in tissue temperature that could indicate disease.

For Liu and Guzzo, their pitch at the World's Best Technology Showcase event was simply one more step in taking the NRC-IMS infrared technology from prototype to product. But for the military, medical, environmental, and industrial sectors, their invention holds limitless potential.

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