Fastest Camera Makes Freezing Time Possible
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on October 31, 2018 |

Innovation often stems from the desire to enhance something, such as making solar panels cleaner to manufacture, or to create something new, such as an alternative to traditional batteries. As technology evolves, sometimes it allows inspiration to come from both areas and open the door to new realms.

One such realm is nonlinear optics and imaging. New technologies have allowed microscopic analysis to evolve to the nanoscale, as well as eliminate constraints caused by the lens, such as development of the FlatScope. Even with these innovations, imaging can still present an issue, especially when there is a need to record images in a single exposure and in real time.

California Institute of Technology researchers and scientists from the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Quebec, Canada, have created a new technology that solves this issue and goes far beyond current observational abilities. T-CUP is the world’s fastest camera. How fast? It can capture 10 trillion frames per second—basically, it freezes time and captures phenomena, including light.

The trillion-frame-per-second compressed ultrafast photography system. (Image courtesy of INRS.)
The trillion-frame-per-second compressed ultrafast photography system. (Image courtesy of INRS.)

 “It’s an achievement in itself,” said Jinyang Liang, lead research author, “but we already see possibilities for increasing the speed to up to 1 quadrillion frames per second.”

As is often the case with research, the team started its work with what was available: compressed ultrafast photography (CUP). Although this method was close, at 100 billion frames per second, it didn’t allow for the integration of femtosecond lasers.

The laser pulses have time durations on the order of 1 to 100 femtoseconds: one quadrillionth of a second. That makes this camera able to provide the ability to analyze interactions between light and matter at a resolution beyond what was once imaginable.

“We knew that by using only a femtosecond streak camera, the image quality would be limited,” said Lihong Wang, Caltech professor of medial engineering and electrical engineering and director of the university’s Optical Imaging Laboratory (COIL). “To improve this, we added another camera that acquires a static image. Combined with the image acquired by the femtosecond streak camera, we can use what is called a Radon transformation to obtain high-quality images while recording 10 trillion frames per second.”

Real-time imaging of the temporal focusing of a femtosecond laser pulse at 2.5 Tfps. (Image courtesy of INRS.)
Real-time imaging of the temporal focusing of a femtosecond laser pulse at 2.5 Tfps. (Image courtesy of INRS.)

In the first trial, the camera was able to capture images of the temporal focusing of a single femtosecond laser pulse in real time across 25 frames at an interval of 400 femtoseconds. The results demonstrated the light pulse’s shape, intensity and angle of inclination. A computer program was used to create a movie from these images, which allowed the team to view the pulse’s movement in slow motion.

This type of real-time imaging has the potential to reinvent microscopes for a host of areas, including materials science and biomedicine.

“Besides the benefits from system innovation, [the imaging system] will allow direct visualization of many instantaneous phenomena that was not possible before,” Liang said. “A few possible applications include irreversible chemical reactions and nanostructure dynamics.”

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