UCLA Engineers Develop High-performance Terahertz Detectors

Nanoantenna array’s higher signal-to-noise ratios mean it can find faint target signals

terahertz detectors
UCLA electrical engineering graduate student Nezih Tolga Yardimci. Art Montes De Oca/UCLA Engineering

Researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have developed a new antenna array that greatly expands the operation bandwidth and level of sensitivity for imaging and sensing systems that use terahertz frequencies.

Terahertz frequencies are an underused part of the electromagnetic spectrum that lies between the infrared and microwave bands. The unique features of this part of the spectrum could be useful for biological sensing and medical imaging, chemical identification and material characterization.

“For example, a terahertz-based imaging system could allow doctors to see how wounds are healing underneath bandages,” said Mona Jarrahi, associate professor of electrical engineering in the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and the principal investigator of the research. The study was published in Scientific Reports, an open-access journal from Nature.

However terahertz technology is not yet mature. One component researchers are aiming to make more efficient is a terahertz detector, which receives the terahertz signals, much like photodetectors in a camera that sense light to produce an image.

By operating across a broader bandwidth, the new nanoscale antenna array developed by Jarrahi and Nezih Tolga Yardimci, a UCLA graduate student in electrical engineering, can extract more information about material characteristics. The device’s higher signal-to-noise ratios mean it can find faint target signals. For example, the new terahertz detector can be tuned to detect certain chemicals even when target molecules are present in miniscule amounts. It can also be used to image both the surface of the skin, and deeper tissue layers.

The unique nanoscale geometry of the antenna array addresses the bandwidth and sensitivity problems of previously used terahertz detectors, the researchers said.

“Up close, it looks like a row of small grates,” Yardimci said. “We specifically designed the dimensions of the nanoantenna elements and their spacing such that an incoming terahertz beam is focused into nanoscale dimensions, where it efficiently interacts with a stream of optical pump photons to produce an electrical signal proportional to the terahertz beam intensity.”

Jarrahi said: “The broad operation bandwidth and high sensitivity of this new type of terahertz detector extends the scope and potential uses of terahertz waves for many imaging and sensing applications.”

The research was supported by financial support from Moore Inventor Fellowship and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.