DARPA-backed start-up builds iPhone sized X-Ray machines

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X-ray technology, which first appeared in the late 1800s, hasn’t changed that much, aside from shrinking the size of X-ray machines down to the size of large handheld drills that cost some $40,000. Now, a Los Angeles-area start-up is steaming ahead with a more affordable, ultraportable X-ray machine that utilizes a brand new technology built off focused static electricity.

Tribogenics, which spun out of DARPA-backed project at UCLA, announced today it has raised $2.5 million from Flywheel Ventures and other angels to build its portable X-ray machines, which should be available in the next year or two. The company said it’s hoping to disrupt the existing $12 billion X-ray machine industry, improving the way other existing industries such as mining, medical devices and security screening lean on the technology and enabling much broader use of X-rays by consumers.

The technology is built off a discovery made by UCLA researchers Carlos Camara, Juan Escobar, Jonathan Hird, and Seth Putterman who found they could create X-Rays bright enough to produce images from peeling adhesive tape. They were able to recreate this tribolelectrification by using an actuator that brings an epoxy surface in and out of contact with a silicone membrane. This ionizes the air and when captured in a vacuum, can create X-ray radiation. This approaches eliminates the need for high voltage, which has previously limited how portable and small other X-ray machines can get.

What Tribogenics has done is turn this whole process into a handheld product called Pocket XRF about the size of thick iPhone. It doesn’t create an image like medical X-ray machines. Instead, it’s designed to send a burst of X-rays into an object and stir up the atoms inside. Then it reads the various fingerprints of the materials inside and presents the results on a graph. That means a jeweler can tell what metals went into a ring or a safety inspector can see the lead content in a product. Miners can see if there are precious metals in a sample. And security screens can inspect objects quickly.

Dale Fox, a mobile pioneer and serial entrepreneur, helped co-found Tribogenics and now serves as its CEO. He said Pocket XRF will make its biggest impact initially in precious metals and hazardous materials, making the discovery and detection process easier and cheaper. He said the products will sell for less than $10,000 a piece initially before dropping down to a much more consumer-friendly price. Ultimately, he said Pocket XRF has the potential to become a consumer tool that brings some of the forward looking features of Star Trek’s fictional Tricorder to the masses:

“It’s like when we made the move from vacuum to transistors in electronics; when you made that jump, the power requirements went down, the devices got smaller, lower cost and more rugged. It opened up an explosion in electronics.”

I’m still getting my head around the technology and am trying to imagine how many uses we can find for it on a daily basis. But it’s a reminder of how technology is moving forward and how many sensors we can pack into increasingly smaller and smaller devices. In the coming years, we are going to be surrounded by an array of lightweight sensors that can do an astonishing amount of tasks, a lot of it mundane but some things very powerful as well.

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