Super-speedy light detector gives x-ray machines a run for their money

It's very tough to find light beyond certain frequencies. If you want to see elusive terahertz waves, for example, you have to get a system that's either really slow or needs to be kept at a temperature near absolute zero -- not exactly practical. The University of Maryland's scientists have a better way, however. They've developed a graphene-based detector that not only works at room temperature, but should be over a million times faster than previous tech. The very nature of graphene is what makes it work so well; since the material doesn't absorb the heat from incoming light, you can use it as a sensor without having to keep it chilly or otherwise jump through hoops to get an accurate reading.

A very fast, very flexible detector like this could be useful for more than just scientific discoveries, like identifying chemicals. The researchers believe it could come in handy for extra-speedy communications and night vision beyond simple infrared, for a start. The breakthrough could be especially vital in medicine -- unlike x-rays, you can see what's between bones and skin, potentially catching problems that would otherwise go unnoticed. It'll likely be a long while before you're standing in front of a graphene scanner in the hospital, but the concept is no longer all that outlandish.

[Image credit: AP Photo/Gero Breloer]