We present the results of a ground-based, high spatial resolution infrared 18 μm imaging study of nearby luminous infrared galaxies (LIRGs), using the Subaru 8.2 m and Gemini-South 8.1 m telescopes. The diffraction-limited images routinely achieved with these telescopes in the Q band (17-23 μm) allow us to investigate the detailed spatial distribution of infrared emission in these LIRGs. We then investigate whether the emission surface brightnesses are modest, as observed in starbursts, or are so high that luminous active galactic nuclei (AGNs; high emission surface brightness energy sources) are indicated. The sample consists of 18 luminous buried AGN candidates and starburst-classified LIRGs identified in earlier infrared spectroscopy. We find that the infrared 18 μm emission from the buried AGN candidates is generally compact, and the estimated emission surface brightnesses are high, sometimes exceeding the maximum value observed in and theoretically predicted for a starburst phenomenon. The starburst-classified LIRGs usually display spatially extended 18 μm emission and the estimated emission surface brightnesses are modest, within the range sustained by a starburst phenomenon. The general agreement between infrared spectroscopic and imaging energy diagnostic methods suggests that both are useful tools for understanding the hidden energy sources of the dusty LIRG population.
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