Just in time for holiday travel season, scientists have come up with a powerful new tool to improve airport scanners.

The advances in T-rays, or terahertz radiation, could allow security officials to discern between common sugar or illegal drugs in an airport security line, msnbc.com reports. T-rays are even sensitive enough to read a message inside a sealed envelope.

Although not quite ready for prime time at airports nationwide, the improvements in T-ray technology could soon reduce long security lines and ubiquitous X-ray machines.

The advances in cheaper, more direct and energy efficient T-rays are thanks to separate research teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rice University, as well as scientists in Europe and elsewhere.

With T-rays, “You can see through optically opaque materials, and many biochemical compounds, like explosives, have a signal in the terahertz range,” said Qing Hu, an MIT scientist.

Researchers said T-rays are safer than X-rays, and more superior, because they pass through clothes and do not harm the skin, thereby enabling security personnel to find hidden weapons. From a security standpoint, T-rays are absorbed into drugs and explosives, making it easy for airline screeners to find hidden drugs or weapons.

“All explosives have these fingerprints in the electromagnetic spectrum,” said Hu. “They can be quite distinctive.”

The advances are thanks to independent research done by the separate teams. First, MIT researchers produced a tunable terahertz laser, which scientists can amplify within seconds. Thanks to Rice researchers, scientists can now also scatter those T-rays in any direction.

Such developments, according to Junichiro Kono, a professor at Rice University, are “promising for the future of T-ray technology.”

Next generation airport scanners
Advances in T-ray technology could save time and energy, cutting down on long airport security lines.