The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) – working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the University of Colorado Boulder – has built a superconducting camera containing 400,000 pixels – 400 times more than any other device of its type – capable of detecting single photons.
Superconducting cameras allow researchers to capture very weak light signals, whether from distant objects in space or parts of the human brain. The new camera potentially lends itself to use in multiple arenas – both in science and in biomedical research.
This new superconducting camera is made up of intersecting arrays of ultrathin, superconducting nanowires that form multiple rows and columns, cooled to near absolute zero, in which current moves with no resistance until a wire is struck by a photon. The energy imparted by even a single photon can be detected because it shuts down the superconductivity at a particular location (or, pixel) on the grid. This new arrangement enables the measurement of signals coming from an entire row or column of pixels at a time, rather than recording data from each individual pixel, drastically reducing the number of readout wires required. Combining all the locations and intensities of all the photons makes up an image.
The team has plans to improve the sensitivity of the prototype camera so that it can capture virtually every incoming photon. That would enable the camera to work in low-light projects, such as imaging faint galaxies, measuring light in photon-based quantum computers, and contributing to biomedical studies that use near-infrared light to examine human tissue. A demonstration of the 400,000 Pixel Superconducting Camera can be seen here.