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updated 1/9/2013 9:21:32 AM ET 2013-01-09T14:21:32

A new X-ray source, about the size of a stick of gum, could go into super-light, portable, all-purpose scanners in the future, its developers say.

Some companies already sell handheld "guns" that aim X-rays for dentists, veterinarians and industrial inspectors. But the new X-ray source, made with crystals of so-called piezoelectric material, could make possible lighter scanners that use less electricity. The X-ray generator can also make other types of radiation, so it could go into other types of sensors.

It would take a few more years of continued research to turn the new radiation generator into a prototype scanner, Scott Kovaleski, one of the generator's developers,  said in a statement. Kovaleski is a nuclear engineer at the University of Missouri. "In approximately three years, we could have a prototype," he said. The device should be the size of a cellphone, he added.

Kovaleski had several ideas about potential uses for his smaller X-ray scanners. Dental patients could put the devices in their mouths to take X-rays from the inside out, which Kovaleski said would reduce their radiation exposure compared to the machines in use today. The X-ray generator could be light enough to travel with planet-exploring rovers, such as the  Curiosity rover  now touring Mars. Border security agents might like better handheld machines for analyzing cargo and luggage, and doctors might bring the devices to more remote areas that don't have X-ray machines. 

Meanwhile, lightweight scanners that generate other types of radiation could replace the radioactive material that some research labs, oil-drilling operations and other industries use to analyze everything from oil pipelines to pollutants. Kovaleski envisioned making a device that would be safer than toting around continuously radioactive material, because users could turn it off when they didn't need it. 

"Our device is perfectly harmless until energized," he said. "We have never really had the ability to design devices around a radioisotope with an on-off switch. The potential for innovation is very exciting."

Piezoelectric materials  like the crystals Kovaleski and his team worked with generate electricity when bent, squeezed or otherwise put under stress. Kovaleski worked with a particular material, lithium niobate, to amplify 10 volts of incoming electricity into more than 100,000 volts. The low amount of incoming electricity needed means that batteries could power the crystals, according to the University of Missouri's news service.

Kovaleski and his colleagues  published their work  in the January 2013 edition of the journal IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science.

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