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A Multitude of Applications
Schulkin's patent-pending technology is available for licensing, and his team has received interest from a number of companies looking to commercialize the Mini-Z. The potential applications for such a device are numerous: evaluating the integrity of carbon fiber composites used in airplanes; imaging tumors without the need for harmful radiation; detecting explosives at airport security checkpoints; spotting landmines from a distance; and seeing biological agents through a sealed envelope.
The spray-on foam insulation used in the space shuttle is an ideal subject for terahertz imaging, Schulkin said. During the STS-114 shuttle mission in July 2005 , video analysis indicated a piece of foam was lost from the bright orange, 15-story-tall external fuel tank of Space Shuttle Discovery. The tank's aluminum skin is covered with polyurethane-like foam averaging an inch thick, which insulates the propellants, prevents ice formation on its exterior, and protects its skin from heat during flight, according to NASA.
Schulkin and his colleagues have conducted tests with foam samples provided by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and fuel-tank manufacturer Lockheed Martin Space Systems. To help prove the viability of terahertz imaging, the team purposely embedded defects in specially prepared foam samples, and then they used T-rays to spot them. In one test, a total of eight man-made defects of various sizes were scattered throughout the sample and successfully detected.
A prototype of the Mini-Z is being evaluated by NASA's External Tank Project Office, which is seeking new methods to either complement or replace those it currently uses in non destructive evaluation. Schulkin's technology will be put in a "run-off" against several other technologies that will help NASA determine which to designate as "space certified," allowing them to become part of NASA's regular manufacturing and inspection process.
A Shining Star on the Research Stage
"Not only does Brian have an impressive grasp of theoretical concepts, but he also has the rare ability to combine this understanding with solid engineering principles," said Alan Cramb, dean of the School of Engineering at Rensselaer. "His innovative spirit and creative spark are an inspiration to us all, and we are fortunate to have the Lemelson-MIT Program to recognize innovative students like Brian."