Terahertz radiation, that portion of the spectrum between infrared and millimeter waves, generally considered to span 300 GHz to 30 THz, offers unique capabilities compared to other bands. Terahertz radiation is non-ionizing, penetrates many materials that are opaque in the visual spectrum, and suffers less Rayleigh scattering than near-infrared radiation. Today, technologies associated with terahertz radiation have brought about the possibility of opening up an extraordinary range of new markets in this decade.
Terahertz radiation interacts with matter generally via the motion of groups of relatively large molecules. Many excitation modes in common materials, such as molecular rotations and vibrations, occur in the terahertz frequency range, opening up the possibility of detecting the signatures of an enormous number of specific chemicals as well as investigating biological processes, which in turn will lead to a range of applications, from environmental and atmospheric sensing to security, medical diagnostics and biological research.
The tremendous versatility of terahertz technology allows it to be used in both imaging and spectroscopic modalities at once. Thus, a terahertz system could not only identify a concealed weapon on an airline passenger, it could at the same time identify a material carried by that same passenger and distinguish between an explosive and a harmless cosmetic.
Terahertz technology has been promoted for an astonishingly wide range of applications:
- Food: food inspection for spoilage and contamination, determining the water content of food
- Biomedicine: mammography, bone tomography, endoscopy, medical diagnostics, detection of skin cancer and other diseases, identification of drugs or other substances in the blood, genetic sequencing
- Security and defense: detection of concealed weapons and explosives; evaluation of biological threats; seeing through sandstorms on the battlefield; and airline passenger screening and detection of contraband, either in luggage, shipping containers, or hidden in people’s clothing or in the mail
- Imaging: imaging the contents of packages, sealed documents or closed books, fossils or oil encased in rock
- Scientific: environmental sensing and pollution detection, Earth remote sensing, plasma diagnostics, chemistry and biochemistry
- And many more.
Growth of markets has been hobbled by lack of funding for technology development, as well as early hype of the capability terahertz systems, before the technology was ready for real-world applications and when it faced significant technical obstacles. Consequently, some early adopters were disappointed in their investments and have soured on terahertz technology in general. Even some companies involved in development of terahertz technology have soured on the field due to a perceived lack of market-readiness or interest by potential customers.
Today, robust, relatively inexpensive and even portable terahertz systems are available commercially, suitable for many of the high profile applications discussed in the report. Industry players are preparing to enter astonishingly varied markets, from security to medicine to manufacturing process control to wireless communications and others.
However, the terahertz industry and its potential customers have become much more polarized since the 2007 report. Where before, a cautious optimism pervaded most developers and many of those considering the use of such systems, while skeptics differed on the timing and likelihood of certain developments, today, the range between industry promoters and skeptics has grown considerably. The advent of robust, high performance systems, ready to address some of the most promising and demanding applications, and the optimism of their developers, is sharply at odds with the pessimistic outlook by others, including some participants in the terahertz industry itself, that projects little opportunity for terahertz systems outside of niche applications.
Looking at the industry as a whole, there is little doubt that terahertz technology is poised to move into substantial markets in the next few years. Already, commercial systems are in use for security screening, to inspect pharmaceutical and other products for defects while already packaged, to monitor manufacturing processes or to check materials like the insulating foam on the Space Shuttle for flaws. Clinical trials for detection of cancer with terahertz systems are underway. How many of these applications will actually lead to growth markets is uncertain; chances are, not all will. However, given the extraordinary breadth and potential volumes of these markets, and the unique ability of terahertz technology to address fundamental issues in these markets, a conservative bet is that at least several of these markets will take off. The question is, which ones? Ultimately the answer will depend on a combination of factors that include application and market development, customer awareness and education, and evolution of technology.
The terahertz industry certainly needs to continue development of hardware, but more importantly, the time has arrived for development of applications and customer education. Systems are commercially available that are capable of taking on many of the high profile applications discussed in this report, but the case needs to be made for potential buyers to justify their investment. Significant markets are within reach, if the applications are properly developed and the capabilities of terahertz technology are made known.
As it is, however, systems now available are sufficiently robust and capable of performing in real world applications. Industry participants indicate that a number of companies in materials, manufacturing, food processing and pharmaceuticals are now evaluating terahertz systems. Consequently, market opportunities within the decade are quite promising.
This report, based on interviews with a wide range of terahertz experts, provides a rough consensus among business development and marketing executives as well as researchers in government and the academic community, to assess which applications and markets are likely to be viable, and which aren’t. Market forecasts bracketed by optimistic and conservative estimates are provided for the years 2015 and 2020.