Compact X-Ray Technology Holds Promise for Medical Imaging

January 25, 2012

California-based startup, Tribogenics, developing compact solution that could be used for portable X-ray or tomographic breast imaging.

A little more than three years ago, a group of physicists at the University of California Los Angeles made a rather startling discovery: Peeling sticky tape in a vacuum will result in the generation of X-rays.

Now, a company called Tribogenics is partnering with UCLA in order to turn this principle of X-ray production - called triboluminescence - into simple, compact X-ray sources, some potentially as small as a USB flash drive.

“While the story of the tape made for a very visible news story,” said Tribogenics CEO Dale Fox, “it was the discovery of a fundamental principle that led us down a path so that the technology has evolved significantly over the last three years - to a level where we can actually generate X-rays by bringing materials in an out of contact repeatedly.”

The process is based on static electricity and is akin to the electricity generated by rubbing a balloon or combing one’s hair, said Carlos Camara, PhD, Tribogenics chief scientist and one of the physicists who first discovered the phenomenon on which the new technology is based. “The choice of materials is a critical part of the technology, but the principle is the same.”

Regardless of how complex the technology has become, Camara said, the key point is that X-rays can be produced without the use of a high-voltage source, which allows for the development of individual X-ray devices that are extremely compact and economical.

“From a practical standpoint, we’ve got it [the size of prototypes] to a few cubic centimeters,” said Camara. “And theoretically, we can push that down significantly more.”

One of Tribogenics’ first funding sources was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which, according to Fox, was interested in developing a field diagnostics solution.

“Obviously, many soldiers receive wounds when they’re out on the field, and you need to know quickly whether you are dealing with something like a cracked rib or a pneumothorax,” said Fox. “The hope is this technology will allow the development of a brief-cased-size imaging solution.” This kind of solution could also be used by medical emergency technicians, or in parts of the world in which X-ray technology is unavailable or there is no access to a stable power supply.

But the technology also has implications for the radiology lab, as well, said Camara.
The development of these small units, independent of one high voltage power source, allows for the “possibility of constructing an array of X-ray sources that could be used in any kind of imaging pattern that suits your imaging needs,” he said. 

 For example, you could have a “simpler version of tomography,” said Camara, “where you don’t need to move your X-ray source, you simply have an array of independent X-ray sources that you can fire at will, and that allows for tomography.”

A potential use of the technology could be for tomographic breast imaging, said Camara. “You could have a dome of emitters coupled to a detector in such a way that [the imaging] is done readily, quickly and close to the object, so that you need less radiation and cause less collateral damage. But you would get the same - if not better - results because you have more flexibility than you have with current technology.”

The technology can be used in other markets as well. “You talk X-ray, and the brain goes straight to the medical marketplace,” said Fox. “But imaging is a $12 billion industry and medical imaging is probably a little less than half of that.” The technology could be used for anything from airline screening and bomb detection to anti-counterfeiting and food safety measures, he said.

Tribogenics has just moved from the laboratory into the commercialization process and as far as the medical imaging industry is concerned, “there is a lot of interest out there from companies I probably don’t even have to list,” said Fox. “Frankly, there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in this marketplace for a very long time - most of the sources are essentially the same technology that’s been around for 100 years, so there is a lot of interest there.”

That said, the process of getting new products onto the market is always a difficult one. Yet, Fox added, “we believe that solutions will be out on the market a lot sooner than people imagine.”

Image courtesy Tribogenics