Posted in | Light / Image Sensor

New Quanta Image Sensor for Superior Quality, Low Light Imaging

This is a sample photo taken with the 1 Megapixel Quanta Image Sensor operating at 1,040 frames per second, with total power consumption as low as 17 mW. It is a binary single-photon image, so if the pixel was hit by one or more photons, it is white; if not, it is black. Figure 4 shows how an image in grayscale was created by summing up eight frames of binary images taken continuously. This process is where the innovative image processing of the QIS can be applied. CREDIT: Jiaju Ma

A new imaging technology that could transform life sciences and medical research, photography, security, cinematography and several other applications that depend on superior quality, low light imaging has been developed by Engineers from Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering.

Co-inventor Eric R. Fossum, professor of engineering at Dartmouth, states that this next generation of light sensing technology, known as the Quanta Image Sensor (QIS), allows highly sensitive, more effortlessly manipulated and superior quality digital imaging than is presently available, even in low light situations. Fossum is also responsible for inventing the CMOS image sensor used in almost all cameras and smartphones all over the world.

The new QIS technology, documented in the Dec. 20 issue of The Optical Society's OSA Optica, is capable of reliably capturing and counting the lowest level of light, single photons, with resolution as great as one megapixel, or one million pixels, and as fast as thousands of frames every second. Furthermore, the QIS can achieve this in low light, at room temperature and while making use of mainstream image sensor technology, according to the Optica article. Earlier technology needed bigger pixels or cooling to low temperatures or both.

What does this mean for industry? The QIS will benefit cinematographers by enabling IMAX-quality video in an effortlessly edited digital format while still offering several of the same characteristics of film. For astrophysicists, the QIS will permit the detection and capture of improved signals from distant objects present in space. For life science researchers, the QIS will offer enhanced visualization of cells under a microscope, which is vital for establishing the efficiency of therapies.

Fossum stresses that building this new imaging capability in a commercially accessible, cost-effective process is vital, and thus he and his team enabled it to be compatible with the low cost and mass production of presently available CMOS image sensor technology. They also allowed it to be readily scalable for greater resolution, with as many as hundreds of megapixels for each chip.

"That way it's easier for industry to adopt it and mass produce it," said Fossum, who was acknowledged earlier this month at Buckingham Palace for his role in producing the CMOS image sensor. On Dec. 6, Charles, Prince of Wales, awarded Fossum the engineering equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

"The QIS is a revolutionary change in the way we collect images in a camera," stated Jiaju Ma who co-authored this month's Optica paper with Fossum, Saleh Masoodian and researcher Dakota Starkey who is presently pursuing his Ph.D. at Thayer. Ma and Masoodian received their Ph.D.s in electrical and electronics engineering from Thayer and are co-inventors of the QIS with Fossum.

The QIS platform technology is considered to be unique, according to Ma, since the sensor incorporates:

  • "Jots," named by the research team for extremely small pixels, which are adequately sensitive to detect a single photon of light
  • Ultra-fast scanning of the jots

This combination allows the QIS to capture data from every single photon, or particle of light, allowing extremely great quality, effortlessly manipulated digital imaging, and also 3D sensing and computer vision, even in low light conditions.

While the present QIS resolution is one megapixel, the team's aim is for the QIS to comprise of hundreds of millions to billions of these jots, all scanned at an extremely fast rate, stated Ma.

Masoodian, Ma and Fossum co-founded the start-up company Gigajot Technology, earlier this year, in order to further develop and apply the technology to several promising applications.

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