New chip poised to enable handheld microwave imaging

Penn Engineering researchers have developed a new microwave imager chip that could one day enable low-cost handheld microwave imagers, or cameras. Because microwaves can travel through certain opaque objects, the new imagers could be useful for imaging through walls or detecting tumors through tissue in the body.

Two versions of the letter P from the Penn logo, an example of the new microwave imaging chip's ability.
The researchers showed that the new microwave imager chip could form images of simple objects such as this metallic Penn logo. Unlike light, microwaves can travel through certain opaque objects, making microwave imagers potentially useful in a wide variety of applications. (Image: Farshid Ashtiani)

In a study led by Firooz Aflatouni, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, and published in the journal Optica, the researchers describe how they used a standard semiconductor fabrication process to make a microwave imager chip containing more than 1,000 photonic components. The square chip measures a little more than 2 millimeters on each side, making it about half the width of a pencil eraser.

“Today’s practical microwave imagers are bench-top systems that are bulky and expensive,” says Aflatouni. “Our new near-field imager uses optical rather than electronic devices to process the microwave signal. This enabled us to make a chip-based imager similar to the optical camera chips in many smartphones.”

Handheld near-field microwave imagers would be useful for many applications, including high-resolution brain imaging and monitoring heart motion and breathing. Miniaturization of microwave imagers would also benefit applications such as tracking objects in radar systems and low-power, high-speed communication links.

Read more at Penn Engineering.