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Apple invents a next-gen Terahertz Sensor Module for Superior Gas Detection & high-speed THz-based data communication applications

1 cover Apple Patent  gas detection


2019 was a big year for Apple patents relating to iDevices with gas detection sensors. Our report in late November 2019 pointed to Apple's fifth published patent for the year. Today the US Patent & Trademark Office published a series of four patent applications from Apple that relate to a terahertz (THz) sensor module for spectroscopy and imaging in dynamic environments to detect dangerous gasses near your iPhone (or iDevice).


Apple notes that today's sensor technologies (e.g., metal-oxide (MOX) gas sensors, electrochemical gas sensors) can detect a few gases but have several disadvantages. For example, integrating a gas sensor on a consumer electronic device requires an aperture or opening to allow air to flow onto the gas sensor so that the gas can be detected.


The design of an aperture into the consumer electronic device poses several challenges. The aperture may degrade water resistivity of the device. Also, the size of the aperture may be constrained due to a tradeoff between form factor and gas detection capability.


In addition to aperture constraints, the number of gases detected by a given sensor is limited and one sensor cannot detect gas, liquid and solid materials. Integrating multiple sensors on the consumer electronic device to detect gas, liquid and solid materials would increase the size and cost of the consumer electronic device.


One solution to the problems described above is to integrate a THz sensor module into the consumer electronic device. The THz sensor module allows the consumer electronic device to support THz spectroscopy and imaging applications for health monitoring and other applications. With a THz sensor module, there is no need for an aperture on the consumer electronic device and gas, liquid and solid materials can be detected.


However, because of the high directivity of the THz emitter, the options for integration of the THz sensor module into a consumer electronic device are limited. Moreover, the detection capability of the THz receiver may be impacted due to emission of the THz wave in a fixed direction when the mounting or holding position of the consumer electronic device is variable.


Apple's invention covers embodiments of a next-gen THz sensor module for spectroscopy and imaging in a dynamic environment.


In an embodiment, a terahertz (THz) sensor module comprises: a THz emitter configured to emit a THz beam into an environment; one or more movable micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) micromirrors; and one or more MEMS motors or actuators coupled to the one or more MEMS micromirrors, the one or more MEMS motors or actuators configured to move the one or more MEMS micromirrors to change a direction of the THz beam in the environment; and a THz receiver configured to receive a reflection of the THz beam from a reflective object in the environment.


One or more THz sensor module(s) can be integrated in various handheld or wearable consumer electronic devices and/or can be a plug-in accessory device which can connect electronically to a consumer electronic device through any desired interface (e.g., USB), or pair with the consumer electronic device using wireless technology (e.g., WiFi, Bluetooth). In an embodiment, a MEMS micromirror is packaged as part of an integrated circuit chip or mounted on the PCB of the electronic device.


When not being used for spectroscopy or imaging, the THz sensor module(s) can be repurposed for high-speed THz-based data communication applications. Apple's patents don't elaborate on this point. 


Apple's patent FIG. 2A below illustrates, from patent application 20210041295, illustrates a fixed THz beam with high directivity and limited coverage; FIG. 2B illustrates THz beam scanning to increase coverage.


2 apple patent figs 2a  2b


Apple's patent FIG. 4A below, from patent application 20210041295, is a conceptual diagram of a THz sensor module that uses MEMS micromirrors; FIG. 5 illustrates the THz sensor module of FIG. 4 embedded in an electronic device.


3 x Apple patent figs 4A & 5


Apple's patent FIG. 21A below, from patent application 20210041293, FIG. 21A illustrates the use of motions sensors of an iPhone to improve battery performance when the device is stationary and lying flat; FIG. 24A illustrates sweeping a THz EM wave to build a reflective signal strength table.


4 Apple patent figs from a second patent


Apple notes in patent application 20210041293 that the THz system can operate in a "sniff mode" where THz EM waves are transmitted at discrete known frequencies of defined target gases that have a unique and maximum absorption spectra to improve battery performance.


As previously stated, THz transceivers typically sweep across the whole THz band of frequencies to detect the presence of a target gas. However, sweeping the entire THz frequency band (0.3 THz to 18 THz) for every scan penalizes battery performance. To improve battery performance, a "sniff" mode is used by the THz system to transmit known discrete frequencies to which defined target gases have unique and maximum absorption spectra.


In another application, the architecture can be integrated into a smart speaker or other Internet of things (IoT) device. The device responds to user voice commands, such as "What is the carbon dioxide level in this room?" In an embodiment, the device can be integrated with a WiFi network so that multiple devices can be placed in different rooms/offices and report local gas concentration levels.


In an embodiment, the device can detect smoke and/or dangerous gases caused by a fire such as carbon monoxide (CO) or hydrogen cyanide (HC), and generate an alert and/or automatically call for emergency assistance.


Lastly, although the majority of the four patents relate to detecting gases from devices like the iPhone and future HomePod mini, Apple notes the following: In addition to detecting the presence of gas, health/quality of liquid or solid materials in an environment, there is need for imaging applications on consumer electronic devices related to health monitoring, such as detecting skin cancer and other skin disorders. The conventional image sensors (e.g., CMOS image sensors) found on consumer electronic devices, however, are incapable of performing such health monitoring applications.


For finer details of this project, review Apple's four patent applications 20210041295, 20210041376, 20210041292 and 20210041293. Considering that these are patent applications, the timing of such a product to market is unknown at this time.


The patent has nothing to do with blood glucose measuring as another website is claiming.  


10.51FX - Patent Application Bar


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