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UMass Lowell Wins $23M Army Grant

Research Key to Improving Military Operations, Cancer Detection


Contacts:    Christine Gillette, 978-934-2209 or Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944

LOWELL, Mass. — In one of the largest grants awarded to the university in its history, a UMass Lowell lab has received $23 million from the U.S. Army.

The grant, from the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center, will allow the Submillimeter-Wave Technology Laboratory to continue its research developing terahertz-frequency measurement systems that can be used in a variety of ways, whether to help the military define unknown objects that appear on radar or help doctors interpret images on medical diagnostic devices.

The grant adds to 2006 funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, which awarded the lab $27 million to fund its research over five years.

“This latest grant is a continuation of our program to assist the government in acquiring and analyzing surveillance radar imagery,” said physics Prof. Robert Giles, the lab’s director. “It is a testament to and recognition of our high level of expertise in the field. Our research is focused on using terahertz-frequency sources and receivers to scale the Army’s millimeter-wave and microwave airborne radar systems.”

In addition to its work for the Army, the research lab has used its unique capabilities to fulfill radar-measurement requests from other Department of Defense agencies as well as defense-related laboratories and companies, including MIT Lincoln Lab, Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.

For 30 years, the Submillimeter-Wave Technology Lab has been at the forefront of terahertz transmitter and receiver technologies and has pioneered design technologies involving lasers and microwave hybrid systems. The lab has developed and applied these technologies in the areas of military surveillance, homeland security, medical diagnostics and scientific and academic research.

From the Lab to the Battlefield

In 1979, Prof. Jerry Waldman — then the lab’s director, now its science adviser — recognized emerging terahertz source/receiver technologies could be used to simulate the military’s sophisticated microwave radar systems in the laboratory. These simulations could then be used to obtain characteristic radar “fingerprints” of aircraft, ships, tanks, trucks and other tactical vehicles at low cost and very high accuracy. Such radar fingerprints are useful for quickly identifying whether an incoming object in the battlefield is a friend or foe.

Researchers at the lab spent more than a decade engineering and fabricating scale versions of the military radars and high-precision models of actual targets, as well as measuring and analyzing the resulting radar backscatter. 

“As a member of the Expert Radar Signature Solutions consortium developed by the National Ground Intelligence Center, we and our government sponsors are the only research program that uses terahertz-frequency measurement systems to collect real-world radar signature data,” Giles said. 

Today, scaling airborne radar imagery at terahertz frequencies requires that the UMass Lowell researchers build accurate models. The challenge includes acquiring the images in laboratory-scale environments, replicating real-life military conditions on desert, soil, asphalt, concrete or other terrains.

Diagnosing Cancer at Terahertz Wavelengths

The lab’s efforts have also successfully spun off to medical applications, especially in detecting non-melanoma skin cancer. With an estimated one million cases diagnosed each year, non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common type of cancer and nearly 100 percent curable if diagnosed and treated in time.

Unlike X-rays, terahertz rays are non-ionizing and have no known harmful effects on living tissue. Also, terahertz rays have a shorter wavelength than microwaves, offering perhaps higher resolution for imaging applications.

Cecil Joseph, a post-doctoral researcher at the lab, has demonstrated there is sufficient contrast between healthy and cancerous tissue at terahertz frequencies. This could lead to a simpler and more cost-effective diagnostic tool for treating skin cancer.

“With sufficient external funding, we are hoping to build the hardware required for clinical studies,” Giles said.

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UMass Lowell is a comprehensive, national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its 15,000 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering, education, fine arts, health and environment, humanities, liberal arts, management, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be ready for work, for life and for all the world offers.