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Super High-Resolution Photo Sensor Developed

Quanta image sensor example

Producing a grayscale image, at far right, with the quanta image sensor, by continuously summing binary pixels, at far left. (Jiaju Ma, Dartmouth College)

19 December 2017. Engineers at Dartmouth College developed a sensor that captures light signals at high speed and resolution down to the level of individual photons. The team from the lab of Dartmouth engineering professor Eric Fossum in Hanover, New Hampshire describes its quanta image sensor in the December 2017 issue of the journal Optica.

With the quanta image sensor, the Dartmouth team aims to provide a high-quality editable image for scientific, medical, and space applications for use in everyday surroundings, including low light and ambient temperatures. The researchers are also seeking a solution compatible with complementary metal-oxide semiconductor or CMOS image sensors widely used in digital cameras and smartphones. Fossum is the inventor of the CMOS active pixel image sensor.

The quanta image sensor captures images in a unit called a jot, Greek for “smallest thing.” Each jot is a specialized binary pixel that can capture as few as 1 photon, a single particle of electromagnetic light energy. Each binary pixel is either white, when exposed to 1 or more photons, or black. In tests described in the journal article, the quanta image sensor accumulated and counted individual photons, at a resolution of 1 million pixels (1 megapixel), and at a rate of 1,040 frames per second.

In addition, the quanta image sensor is built with commercial CMOS technology. The sensor operated as well at normal room temperatures and low power. The authors say that current image sensors returning these results need to be operated under cool conditions, or require making compromises in performance with larger detector size, lower resolution, or higher power.

The authors believe the quanta image sensor fills a need for high-performance medical and scientific imaging, since it can visualize individual cells in real time, and for researchers in astrophysics for its ability to better capture signals from deep space. The sensor can also be useful in automotive and security applications, where precise high-speed imaging is important. For cinematography, the researchers say the quanta image sensor can capture Imax-quality video in a more editable digital format.

Rambus Inc., a Silicon Valley semiconductor and sensor developer, is one of the funders of Fossum’s research described in the paper, with DARPA and U.S. Army Research Office. Fossum, along with first author Jiaju Ma and co-author Saleh Masoodian, are founders of the start-up enterprise Gigajot Technology LLC in Hanover, to commercialize the quanta image sensor. Massodian is the company’s CEO, while Ma is Gigajot’s chief technology officer.

Earlier in December, Gigajot licensed Rambus’s binary pixels technology that Rambus says captures more data than conventional image sensors, to the point of emulating visual processing similar to rods and cones in the human eye.

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