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Super Sensitive Sensor Sees What You Can't

Feb 13, 2018
Originally published on February 14, 2018 12:22 pm

A team of engineers at Dartmouth College has invented a semiconductor chip that could someday give the camera in your phone the kind of vision even a superhero would envy.

The new technology comes from Eric Fossum, a professor of engineering and his colleagues at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering.

This isn't the first imaging technology Fossum has worked on. Twenty-five years ago, while working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he invented CMOS image sensor technology.

"There's about 4 billion cameras made every year with that CMOS image sensor technology," Fossum says.

The CMOS sensor chip turns light into electrical signals that can be processed to form digital images.

Fossum calls his new technology QIS, for Quanta Image Sensor. Instead of pixels, QIS chips have what Fossum and his colleagues call "jots." Each jot can detect a single particle of light, called a photon.

"What this chip can do because it's sensitive to single photons is it can see in the dimmest possible light," Fossum says.

A regular light bulb produces more than a billion-billion photons per second. So a single photon is pretty dim.

Other inventors have come up with chips that can see single photons, but these usually require special cooling equipment and are expensive to make.

Fossum's chip works at room temperature and uses standard manufacturing tools. He describes his new chip in the journal Optica.

Fossum envisions QIS will permit a new approach to creating digital images. Fast electronics allows each jot to be sampled 1,000 times per second. To build an image from the chip, the individual samples are added together and, using image processing software, a single image is produced.

It also could be useful to astronomers interested in collecting light from distant objects, or to military forced to work in low-light environments.

"It's really cool," says Sara Jensen, a microelectronic engineer at the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. "I went and showed the paper around with some of the people I worked with in the camera field, and they were really excited about it. So I think it's a really big deal."

As impressive as it may be, don't expect to see the new chip in your cellphone any time soon. Fossum says it was more than two decades before his CMOS chip was in common use. He says the new chip is probably on a similar track.

"Maybe even a slower track, because strangely I'm trying to compete against myself with this new technology," he says. "The existing technology, my technology, is still pretty good."

Fossum is betting his new technology will become popular. He's formed a company called Gigajot Technology to start marketing it.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A team of engineers at Dartmouth College has invented a semiconductor chip that could someday give the camera in your phone the kind of vision a superhero would envy. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca tells us more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: To anybody with a smartphone, this is a very familiar sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER CLICK)

PALCA: The camera on your phone uses something called CMOS image sensor technology.

ERIC FOSSUM: There's about 4 billion cameras made every year with that CMOS image sensor technology.

PALCA: Scientist, engineer and inventor Eric Fossum came up with this technology about 25 years ago when he was working at NASA. The CMOS chip turns light into electrical signals that can be processed to form digital images. Now Fossum has come up with a new chip that can run rings around his old chip. It's so sensitive that it can see a single particle of light known as a photon.

FOSSUM: What this chip can do because it's sensitive to single photons is it can see in the dimmest possible light.

PALCA: To give a better sense of how dim that is, Fossum says a regular light bulb produces more than a billion billion photons per second. So a single photon is pretty darn dim. And by collecting all these individual photons, the new chip will allow super sharp images.

Other inventors have come up with chips that can see single photons, but they tend to be expensive to make and operate. Fossum's chip works at room temperature and uses standard manufacturing tools. He described his new chip in the journal Optica. Sara Jensen is a micro-electric engineer at the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

SARA JENSEN: Yeah, it's really cool. I went and kind of shared the paper around with some of the people I worked with in the camera field. And they were really excited about it. So I think it's a really big deal.

PALCA: As impressive as it may be, don't expect to see the new chip in your cellphone anytime soon. Fossum says it was more than two decades before his CMOS chip was in common use. He says the new chip is probably on a similar time track.

FOSSUM: Maybe even a slower track because strangely, I'm trying to compete against myself with this new technology. The existing technology - my technology - is still pretty good.

PALCA: Fossum is betting his new technology will become popular. He's formed a company to start marketing it. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.