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 a technique developed at the School of Engineering & Applied Science called compressed ultrafast photography (CUP), Wang and his colleagues have made movies of the images they took with single laser shots of four physical phenomena: 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 said. “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 raw data are acquired, the actual images are formed on a personal computer; the technology is known as computational imaging.
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 biomedical research.
“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.
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.”
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