Safieddin (Ali) Safavi-Naeini

Electrical and Computer Engineering; NSERC-Blackberry Industrial Senior Research Chair

Improving Healthcare with Electromagnetic Waves


By Katie Webb, CBB Biographer
December 7, 2012

Safieddin (Ali) Safavi-Naeini, Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology member and University of Waterloo Professor, uses electromagnetic waves to solve problems encountered in everyday life. Specifically, he has found a way to use electromagnetic waves to image and analyse materials to improve healthcare.

One of the areas he works on improving is pharmaceuticals. The pharmaceutical industry has an immense impact—their products help us to get well when we are sick and, for many, to maintain good health on a daily basis. However, even in the largest of pharmaceutical companies, quality control involves merely an automated visual inspection of medications, with complete analysis being conducted on only a small subsample of a batch of medication.

For Safavi-Naeini, this is not enough. Using terahertz technology, Safavi-Naeini, has developed a way to vastly improve the quality control of pharmaceuticals. His new method not only allows for the analysis of each and every pill which is produced, but does not require that any pills are destroyed to complete a full analysis. This technology has the potential to completely change the landscape of quality control in pharmaceutical facilities, ensuring that all medications are true to their intended composition.

Safavi-Naeini’s method for doing this involves the replacement of visual inspection cameras with what he calls 4D or Terahertz Cameras. This application takes advantage of the unique properties of terahertz waves—as an electromagnetic wave with a frequency uniquely situated between the radio-waves and the light waves, terahertz waves are able to both visualize and penetrate materials. This allows the Terahertz Camera to not only capture images of medications as they come off the production line, but also to penetrate the pills and conduct a full chemical analysis of them. This analysis is possible even through the product packaging, allowing pharmaceutical companies to double-check medications are in their proper packages.

Using similar technology, Safavi-Naeini’s research group is developing an inexpensive device to conduct pre-screening for skin cancers. This time using microwave signals, his device illuminates the skin and tests the level of reflection that the device receives back. Based on the intensity of the reflected wave, the device can determine if the illuminated skin responded normally to the test or if there is a problematic area on or within the skin that requires further testing. This provides a way to conduct screening with more accuracy than a visual exam, but without the invasion of a biopsy. Its low cost (less expensive than a full lab test) also makes it a practical alternative, affordable to even small clinics.

His research team has also developed a number of smart antenna/radio technologies for extremely low-power wireless body-area-network. These technologies have far-reaching implications for a wide range of mobile health applications including both sensing and information transmission.

Safavi-Naeini has garnered the power of electromagnetic waves to conduct analysis in a non-invasive and accurate manner, to create technologies which deliver better quality medications and lead to fewer biopsies. Moreover, the innovative healthcare technologies he has created become practical solutions for improving healthcare when coupled with their ability to address common problems at a low cost.