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Electron beam tomography is a specific form of computed axial tomography (CAT or CT) in which the X-Ray tube is not mechanically spun in order to rotate the source of X-Ray photons. This different design was explicitly developed to better image heart structures which never stop moving, performing a complex complete cycle of movement with each heart beat.
As in conventional CT technology, the X-ray source still rotates around the circle in space containing an object to be imaged tomographically, but the X-Ray tube is much larger than the imaging circle and the electron beam current within the vacuum tube is swept electronically, in a circular (partial circle actually) path and focused on a stationary tungsten anode target ring.
The principal application advantage of EBT tomographic CT machines and the reason for the invention, is that the X-Ray source is swept electronically, not mechanically, and can thus be swept with far greater speed than with conventional CT machines based on mechanically spun X-Ray tubes.
The major medical application for which this design technology was invented in the 1980s, namely for imaging the human heart. The heart never stops moving and important structures of the heart, e.g. that arteries, are small with some of them moving distances several times their diameter during each heart beat. Thus rapid imaging to avoid image blurring of the anatomy is important. The most advanced current commercial designs can perform image sweeps in as little as 0.025 seconds. By comparison, the fastest mechanically swept X-Ray tube designs require about 0.33 seconds to perform an image sweep. For reference, current coronary artery angiography imaging is usually performed at 30 frames/second or 0.033 seconds/frame; EBT is far closer to this than mechanically swept CT machines.
Another technology application for EBT technology has been in rapid object/package/mail screening and sterilization of objects. Commercial demand for this application of EBT greatly increased in the US after the 11 September 2001 destruction of the NY Twin Towers and the series of anthrax contaminated letters. However, lack of acceptance of food sterilization by X-Ray has limited mass demand and development for sterilization uses.
As in standard X-Ray tubes, part of the electron current energy when hitting the tungsten target is converted into photons. However, instead of spinning a small target anode in order to dissipate waste heat, the electron current focus spot is swept along a large stationary target anode.
The electron current sweep is aimed using wound copper coil magnetic deflection yokes, as in a cathode ray tube (CRT). However, the entire structure of the cathode, deflection yokes, anode and overall vacuum tube size is much larger, therefore made out of steel, not glass, with the main central open mid-section of the vacuum tube hollow, leaving room for the scan table and object or person to lay while the scan is performed.
Given the vastly larger size and low production volume of the EBT design, only about 120 exist in the world, as of 2004, vs. thousands of more conventional design CT machines. This CT scanner design has remained more expensive, by over double, than the more widely sold CT design in which a small, more conventional X-Ray tube is mechanically spun.
Whether the inherent sweep speed advantage will maintain commercial viability of the EBT design, even lead to greater acceptance, remains unclear at this time. As of 2002, one major company owns and offers models in both competing designs, with engineering cross-pollination of techniques between the product design teams. As of 2005, it increasingly appears that the spiral CT designs, especially those with (b) 64 detector rows, (b)>3 turns/sec rotation speeds and designed for cardiac imaging, are largely replacing the EBT design from a commercial and medical perspective.
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