Sometimes to solve a problem, you need to invent brand-new tech

Electrical engineer brings his laser expertise and technical skills to bear on radical new medical imaging technology

Thien Nguyen - 24 September 2019

(Edmonton) Millions of Canadians are affected by serious respiratory diseases and require long-term medical monitoring.
One major challenge facing these individuals and their doctors is medical imaging of the lungs. While CT scans and X-rays provide the best images, the cumulative impact of multiple exposures to radiation over time results in a dangerous increase in the risk of cancer.
Other technologies such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) have no harmful effects-but they cannot provide helpful images.
"Your lungs are filled with air, and air does not produce a useful magnetic response. Imaging lungs with MRI is very difficult-you get poor images out of that," says Gil Porat, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Alberta who has a radical plan to solve this problem.
Porat is investigating an alternative to create safe, affordable magnetized gases that magnetic imaging devices can detect in a patient's lungs. This approach has the potential to improve patient treatment by providing health-care workers with more accurate information about their patients' health, avoiding the radiation exposure that comes with other technologies.
"All the patient has to do is inhale the gas, hold it in their lungs and the gas stays magnetized in their lungs," Porat said. "You can see extremely minute details," he said.
To achieve this, researchers need to use noble gases such as helium and xenon, which can be magnetized. Current efforts to magnetize noble gas require complex and expensive equipment to produce even small amounts of the gas. Often these methods introduce toxics and the toxics must be removed before the gas can be safely administered to patients. What's more, the gas gets only partially magnetized.
It's a difficult technological challenge to overcome, but one Porat is driven to solve. To do so, he plans on inventing new technology to produce affordable, safe gases.
The electrical engineer is developing a desktop version of large high-power ultraviolet lasers. By exposing noble gases to the laser light, the gas becomes fully magnetized.
"It's high-risk, high-gain research," said Porat. "My idea goes against the grain. Everybody for decades has been walking along different lines, and now I'm saying the technology is here now, we can make it happen."