Portable X-ray machines have been around for nearly 100 years, but they are only portable in the sense that they can be budged at all. Most are heavy, large, and require as much power as an electric-fired home water heater to use.
The mission of Tribogenics, a Southern California-based startup, is to to replace all those clunky machines with devices no larger than a good-sized laptop. The company plans to get there using a tiny X-ray generator the length of a stick of gum, that could power small, battery-powered X-ray machines. If successful, the lightweight imaging machines could easily be transported to the front lines of combat, to disaster areas, or simply to remote locales far from hospitals – all without needing to transport the patient. To help move from science experiment to product, Tribogenics has raised $6.2 million from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.
Under a DARPA-funded initiative, Tribogenics developed a small X-ray emitter using “a breakthrough new metal-polymer technology.” Since the technology is still pre-production, the company won’t go into exact detail on what that means, but chief scientist Carlos Camara says Tribogenics is “completely reinventing the X-ray device.”
Reinventing the X-ray emitter, in Tribogenics’ case, means making it tiny and supremely energy-efficient. The company’s name, Tribogenics, is a nod to the type of energy its X-ray emitters leverage to generate electricity, called tribocharging. You know it as static electricity – an electrical charge generated by friction. Tribogenics’s emitters use the same concept to generate power themselves, and thus require only minimal outside power to keep a portable X-ray machine going.
Truly portable X-ray machines are still years away, but Tribogenics is betting they’ll find wide application. To give you an idea, one mockup on Tribogenics’ website (shown right) shows a portable X-ray machine the size of a computer monitor scanning a man’s chest while he lies in a field. The X-ray machine is hooked up to a computer, which shows the X-ray just after its captured.
While the ultimate goal is an X-ray machine that can be carried anywhere, for now the company is focused on emitters of X-ray fluorescence, secondary X-rays used to detect and analyze chemicals, heavy metals and other compounds. “X-rays have essential applications from materials analysis to medicine,” says Founders Fund partner Bruce Gibney who led Tribogenic’s round. “But despite their enormous utility, there hasn’t been a major revolution in the production of X-rays in a century.”