by Michael Mullaney on February 28, 2011

For the past four years, the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize has been a fascinating window into some of the best and brightest student minds at the Institute. The projects span the entire spectrum of science and engineering. Upon taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, a clear common thread is revealed: these young researchers are laser-focused on using their intellect to change the world for the better. This is inspiring stuff.

The pool of applicants for this year’s Lemelson prize is no exception. We released a story today about one of the three finalists, Ben Clough, a doctoral student in electrical, computer, and systems engineering. He created the above video as part of his application for the prize. It’s a wonderful, accessible entry point into the tech-heavy topic of terahertz spectroscopy. He calls the project “TEA,” or Terahertz Enhanced Acoustics. Enjoy.

For those still reading, here is the Cliff’s Notes version of Ben’s project: He developed a novel method for eavesdropping on terahertz information hidden in invisible plasma acoustic bursts. Sensors using terahertz waves can penetrate packaging materials or clothing and identify the unique terahertz “fingerprints” of many hidden materials, making it a potentially life-saving tool for detecting bombs and other dangerous materials. Here’s the rub – terahertz detection only works over short distances. Ben demonstrated a promising technique that effectively extends the operational distance of terahertz sensing, by using sound waves to listen to terahertz plasma bursts. The captured audio information is then converted into digital data, and instantly checked against a library of known terahertz fingerprints. This means you can know within a matter of seconds if you’re dealing with a dangerous substance, or a harmless one.

Some grist for the mill, below are links to stories on the past Rensselaer Lemelson winners:

2010 – Student Inventor Tackles Challenge of Hydrogen Storage: Javad Rafiee’s graphene innovation could lead to more efficient hydrogen-powered vehicles 

2009 – Student Developer of Versatile “G-gels” Wins $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Prize: Yuehua “Tony” Yu’s innovation could lead to new medical devices, drug-delivery technologies

2008 – Student Develops New LED, Wins $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Prize: Martin Schubert’s polarized LED could improve LCD displays, save energy

2007 – Handheld “T-ray” Device Earns New $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize: Brian Schulkin’s “Mini-Z” spots cracks in space shuttle foam, detects tumors in tissue