06/27/2013 04:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Superman X-Ray Vision for the Masses?

If you could have just one of Superman's superpowers, what would it be? Most people would choose flight. After that, X-ray vision would probably be a close second.

That technology may be available to all of us sooner than you think. Los Alamos National Laboratories and a startup called Tribogenics have teamed up to create a lightweight, compact, low-cost X-ray system to inspect sealed containers and facilities -- basically, to see through walls. Just like Superman.

The name of the new system, MiniMAX, stands for Miniature Mobile Agile X-ray. It only weighs five pounds, and it's designed to replace gargantuan fixed inspection facilities (think the luggage inspection X-rays machines at the airport) that weigh tons and cost hundreds of times as much.

The technology for MiniMAX is based on a DARPA-funded project that originated at UCLA. DARPA has a history of fostering technology originally meant for the military that diffuses into general use (you may have heard of the Internet, for example). So although this first application of MiniMAX is for defense and national security, Tribogenics and Los Alamos have had medical imaging in mind all along. Scott Watson of Los Alamos's Nuclear Engineering and Nonproliferation Division says, "We designed MiniMAX to demonstrate that such a system will open up new applications in security inspection, field medicine, specimen radiography and industrial inspection."

One reason I'm excited about the work of Tribogenics is because their X-ray emission source derives from a phenomenon called triboluminescence. This is the same effect that lets you see Wint-O-Green Life Savers give off a spark when you bite down on them in the dark. What you thought of as a cool party trick is now poised to potentially revolutionize medical imaging.

I would speculate that MiniMAX could some day be used as a portable X-ray device for field medics, and then find its way into doctor's offices and even private homes -- perhaps as part of every First Aid kit. From there, maybe real working X-ray specs for the masses aren't so far off after all.

If you're curious about how all of this works and when your X-ray specs will be ready, this innovative technology will be "featured at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) International Conference on Nuclear Security: Enhancing Global Efforts, July 1-5," according to a public release. If that's too far to travel, you can always check out the Tribogenics web site and read up in greater detail on what they're up to.

For national security reasons, we're not allowed to show you a picture of the device. But to give you a feel for what's possible, below is the image of a calculator taken by a handheld MiniMAX.


About the author: I like to write about medical science & technology, positive psychology, happiness and wellness. I'm the author of The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman's Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible, the highest-rated dating book on Amazon for 94 weeks, available as book, ebook, audiobook, and on Kindle™ and Nook™. My latest book is Best Dating Advice I Ever Got 2.