Star Trek popularized the concept of the tricorder — a handheld device that can scan a person, object, or atmosphere and report on its health or makeup. Now, a team of Stanford electrical engineers have taken a giant leap for mankind toward a real device that can do just that. The team’s research theorizes that microwaves and ultrasound can work together in a portable device to detect hidden objects, be they plastic explosives or deadly tumors.

The research, led by Assistant Professor Amin Arbabian and Research Professor Pierre Khuri-Yakub, was primarily motivated by military technology developed to locate plastic explosives that would evade metal detectors. The team says the same technology could have medical applications, with a potential to detect early stage cancers.

Related: Scientists develop a way to detect cancer on patients’ breath

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The scanner works in a somewhat sneaky way. First, it emits electromagnetic radiation in the form of microwaves. All materials expand and contract when stimulated with electromagnetic energy, so it then becomes possible to detect those objects through ultrasound waves. Pairing the two technologies in a single portable device could lead to diagnosing deadly tumors without ever touching the patient. The Stanford research findings could lead to a medical device that looks and performs like something right out of Star Trek.

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“We’ve been working on this for a little over two years,” Khuri-Yakub said. “We’re still at an early stage but we’re confident that in five to ten to fifteen years, this will become practical and widely available.”

The experiments were detailed in Applied Physics Letters and presented at the International Ultrasonics Symposium in Taipei, Taiwan.

Via Stanford University

Images via Bobbie Johnson and Stanford Engineering (via screenshot)