Scientists say they have developed a camera that can record 70 trillion frames per second and can be used to capture nuclear fusion, radioactive decay of molecules or astronomical events that are light years away.
The ‘Compressed Ultrafast Spectral Photography’ (CUSP) device, which emits extremely short laser pulses, can capture moving light waves or the fluorescent retardation of molecules.
Such a frame rate can also capture events that happen too fast for traditional film speeds, such as shock waves and the transport of photons – the basic unit of light – through different substances.
CUSP can make 70 trillion frames when someone blinks, breaking the research team’s previous record of 10 trillion per second.
The new record-breaking device could open research on fundamental physics, the next generation of semiconductors and the life sciences.
While CUSP is miles ahead of the average smartphone camera, managing about 30 frames per second, more research would be needed to transform the vast array of lab equipment into a widely available device.
Using the new ultrafast camera system called CUSP (right) and the older T-CUP, which captures 10 trillion frames per second (left), researchers can see pulses of light moving across a target that reads “Caltech”.
“We see applications in a rich variety of extremely fast phenomena, such as ultrashort light propagation, wave propagation, nuclear fusion, photon transport in clouds and biological tissues, including fluorescent decay or biomolecules,” said Lihong Wang at the Optical Imaging Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Using the new ultra-fast camera system, researchers were able to see pulses of light passing through a series of letters that read “Caltech.”
The pulses were passed over the text and captured at 70 trillion fps with both the new CUSP camera and the older T-CUP camera, which captures 10 trillion frames per second.
The frame rate of cameras fundamentally limits people’s ability to distinguish the physical world, the researchers say in their research article.
Recently, silicon sensor based imaging technologies have been improved to provide frame rates of up to millions of frames per second.
However, they fail to capture a “rich variety of extremely fast phenomena,” such as ultrashort light propagation, nuclear fusion, and the radioactive decay of molecules.
An illustration of the complex CUSP system. The beam splitter pair followed by a glass rod (right) converts a single femtosecond pulse into a temporary linearly chirped pulse train with neighboring subpulses
Successful studies of these phenomena form the basis for modern physics, biology, chemistry, materials science and engineering.
To observe such events, scientists usually activate the desired event multiple times while observing it through a narrow time window at different time delays, the so-called ‘pump probe’ method.
However, pump probe cannot record the event in real time and therefore only applies to phenomena that are highly repeatable, Caltech researchers claim.
To go one step further, CUSP uses a laser that emits extremely short pulses of laser light that last only a billionth of a second or a femtosecond.
These light pulses are split into a train of even shorter pulses, each hitting a specialized sensor to produce an image in the camera.
The researchers’ T-Cup device, which captures images at 10 trillion frames per second. The camera system, which was unveiled last year, is so fast that it can record light in slow motion
CUSP’s superior real-time frame rate of 70 trillion frames per second in active mode is three orders of magnitude greater than the physical limit of semiconductor sensors.
CUSP also records data that is more than a million times faster than the pump probe approach.
Wang and his team previously built a device that could handle a trillion frames per second – the T-Cup, which they say could power a new generation of microscopes for medical or hospital blood tests.
Co-author Professor Jinyang Liang said at the time that the ultrashort pulse of a laser is usually much too short to visualize.
“This new camera literally makes it possible to freeze time to see phenomena – and even light – in extremely slow motion,” he said.
The team sees possibilities to increase the speed to a maximum of one billion frames per second, which could provide insight into ‘undetectable secrets of the interactions between light and matter’.
CUSP is described further in the magazine Nature Communications.