World's fastest 2-D camera may enable new scientific discoveries

World's fastest 2-D camera may enable new scientific discoveries
Photographers have been pursuing the capture of transient scenes at a high imaging speed for centuries. Now, Washington University engineers have developed the world's fastest receive-only 2-D camera that can capture events up to 100 billion frames per second. This image is also the cover illustration of the Dec. 4, 2014, issue of Nature, in which Wang's research appears. Credit: Lihong Wang, PhD

A team of biomedical engineers at Washington University in St. Louis, led by Lihong Wang, PhD, the Gene K. Beare Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, has developed the world's fastest receive-only 2-D camera, a device that can capture events up to 100 billion frames per second.

That's orders of magnitude faster than any current receive-only ultrafast imaging techniques, which are limited by on-chip storage and electronic readout speed to operations of about 10 million frames per second.

Using the Washington University technique, called compressed ultrafast photography (CUP), Wang and his colleagues have made movies of the images they took with single laser shots of four : laser pulse reflection, refraction, faster-than light propagation of what is called non-information, and photon racing in two media. While it's no day at the races, the images are entertaining, awe-inspiring and represent the opening of new vistas of scientific exploration.

The research appears in the Dec. 4, 2014, issue of Nature.

"For the first time, humans can see light pulses on the fly," Wang says. "Because this technique advances the imaging frame rate by orders of magnitude, we now enter a new regime to open up new visions. Each new technique, especially one of a quantum leap forward, is always followed a number of new discoveries. It's our hope that CUP will enable new discoveries in science—ones that we can't even anticipate yet."

This camera doesn't look like a Kodak or Cannon; rather, it is a series of devices envisioned to work with high-powered microscopes and telescopes to capture dynamic natural and physical phenomena. Once the are acquired, the actual images are formed on a personal computer; the technology is known as computational imaging.

Credit: Gao et al.

The development of the technology was funded by two grants from the National Institutes of Health that support pioneering and potentially transformative approaches to major challenges in .

"This is an exciting advance and the type of groundbreaking work that these high-risk NIH awards are designed to support," said Richard Conroy, PhD, program director of optical imaging at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, part of the NIH. "These ultrafast cameras have the potential to greatly enhance our understanding of very fast biological interactions and chemical processes and allow us to build better models of complex, dynamical systems."

An immediate application is in biomedicine. One of the movies shows a green excitation light pulsing toward fluorescent molecules on the right where the green converts to red, which is the fluorescence. By tracking this, the researchers can get a single shot assessment of the fluorescence lifetime, which can be used to detect diseases or reflect cellular environmental conditions like pH or oxygen pressure.

World's fastest 2-D camera may enable new scientific discoveries
Compressed ultrafast photography process. Credit: Lihong Wang, PhD

Wang envisions applications in astronomy and forensics, where the advanced imaging frame rate could analyze the temporal activities of a supernova that occurred light years away, or track and predict the movements of thousands of potentially hazardous pieces of "space junk," refuse of old satellites and jettisoned space craft hurtling about at high speed in outer space. In forensics, CUP might be used in reproducing bullet pathways, which could once again open up the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories and revive a more accurate analysis of the strange physics of the "magic bullet."

Wang and his collaborators essentially added components and used algorithms to complement an existing technology known as a , which measures the intensity variation in a pulse of light with time. While a streak camera is fast, it gives only a one-dimensional view, which "is not intuitive—much analogous to watching a horse race through a distant vertical slit," Wang said. "We expanded the view into 2-D space, more like what we see in the real world."

CUP photographs an object with a specialty camera lens, which takes the photons from the object on a journey through a tube-like structure to a marvelous tiny apparatus called a digital micromirror device (DMD), smaller than a dime though hosting about 1 million micromirrors, each one just seven by seven microns squared. There, micromirrors are used to encode the image, then reflect the photons to a beam splitter which shoots the photons to the widened slit of a streak camera. The photons are converted to electrons, which are then sheared with the use of two electrodes, converting time to space. The electrodes apply a voltage that ramps from high to low, so the electrons will arrive at different times and land at different vertical positions. An instrument called a charge-coupled device (CCD) stores all the raw data. All of this occurs at the breathtaking pace of 5 nanoseconds. One nanosecond is a billionth of a second.

Wang's work with CUP pushes the dimensional limits of fundamental physics and also pushes the limits of deep imaging of biological tissues, one of Wang's research specialties.

"Fluorescence is an important aspect of biological technologies," he says. "We can use CUP to image the lifetimes of various fluorophores, including fluorescent proteins, at light speed."

In the astronomy world, CUP can be a game-changer, Wang says.

"Combine CUP imaging with the Hubble Telescope, and we will have both the sharpest spatial resolution of the Hubble and the highest temporal solution with CUP," he says. "That combination is bound to discover new science."

Explore further

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More information: Nature,
Journal information: Nature

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Dec 04, 2014
A Major breakthrough and not one comment! You know why? It's real science and not this crap theories that everyone and there brother can comment on and protect there beliefs. Maybe we can learn enough from this camera about light, that when we look at the photos from space we might get something correct for a change.

Dec 04, 2014
Can someone explain what exactly is happening right before the bounce? Is it some kind of interference or what?!?

Dec 04, 2014
Practical limits to the resolution? Duration? Couple CCDs together to increase either? How about sensitivity? Dynamic range? I like numbers.

Dec 04, 2014
You can get some of that from the abstract and the provided images (if you click the last sample image there's a link to movies in the image caption)

Dec 04, 2014
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Dec 04, 2014
I don't get the purpose of the micromirror array.

Dec 04, 2014
Aquí estoy con algo nuevo.para mi. Ojalá que lo aprendo rápidamente.
Arriba vez una cámara, que nos va captar un imagen, como los electrones circulan alrededor de su núcleo, que son los prótones. Niels Bohr mando a hacer un Modelo sobre sus ideas, ahora podemos ver hasta donde tuvo razón. Sobre el mundo de los átomos existen solamente teorías, cuya validez es ahora posible de demonstrar.Este es un paso gigantesco en todas las ciencias, porque no se olviden, que todas las estructuras se basen en el conjunto de las estructuras tan pequeño como un átomo.
En el Mundo de la biología vamos a ver , como funcionan las moléculas, y la estructura de las células, y por supuesto las injerencias de las elementos nocivos para nuestra salud..
Aquí se van aclarar muchas mentiras, y a quien les interesa , va saber exactamente el contenido de cualquier sustancia. En total, las aplicaciones son infinito.

Dec 04, 2014
100 billion frames per second, could you think of the implications.

Kyle Boas
Founder and Producer of

Dec 04, 2014
Just for fun, I calculated the results if this camera were to video a high-velocity rifle bullet (at 1000 meters/second) fired at a distance of one meter towards a target, say a balloon. If I did the numbers correctly, at a playback rate of 25 frames/second it would take about one and a half months to see the bullet leave the muzzle of the rifle and reach the balloon.

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