Using a quirk of quantum mechanics, a new device promises to provide a massive boost to camera technology. The breakthrough could have applications in areas as wide-ranging and diverse as self-driving vehicles and biomedical scanners.
Smartphone cameras have come a very long way. Just a few short years ago, even amateur photographers would have scoffed at the idea of taking professional stock images on a smartphone. But, despite this advancement, smartphone cameras face a bottle-neck in the future.
Better images mean capturing more photons — the fundamental particles of light — and capturing more photons means detectors with a larger surface area and increased thickness. Something that could significantly impact the thin, compact design of smartphones.
New technology could help developers avoid this trade-off, however. SeeDevice’s Photon Assisted Tunneling Photo Detector (PAT-PD) utilizes one of quantum physics’ most counter-intuitive aspects to eliminate so-called ‘photon-leakage’ and provide a sensor that trumps current DSLR sensors in terms of absorption. The benefits provided by PAT-PD technology include the reduction of motion-blur, increased efficiency in low-light, infrared capabilities, and an increased range.
Whilst SeeDevice says that this technology is well-suited to smartphone applications — the improved capture of photons reduces the need for a larger capture-area — the benefits it provides also suggest adaptability to a wide range of diverse areas. Seeing further and clearer is a massive boon to sensors associated with self-driving vehicles, allowing dangers and hazards lying ahead in the road to be spotted more quickly affording onboard AI more time to assess risk and calculate a mitigation strategy.
Meanwhile, the massively improved photon capture allows PAT-PD equipped biomedical scanners to see beneath a patient’s skin, tracing blood vessels.
Depending on the wavelength we tune to we can detect anything from glucose levels, fat/cholesterol levels, heart rate, and even alcohol level.
Mark Shedd, VP of Marketing, SeeDevice
Dig This! Using Quantum Tunnelling to Build a Better Image
The phenomenon exploited by the PAT-PD is a quantum behavior that perfectly exemplifies how physical phenomena vary from micro to macro scales — quantum tunneling. What this phenomenon allows is for a particle to be found in an area that would be ‘classically forbidden’ to it. This usually means in a region that it does not have enough energy to reach.
Whilst the chances of a photon achieving this ‘barrier penetration’ is statistically extremely small, the sheer number of photons involved in the capture of an image means that a large sample will still exhibit this behavior.
This relates to PAT-PD as quantum tunneling means that an electron signal can be kick-started with far fewer photons. This provides a huge advantage in low-light conditions where fewer photons are available to build an image.
Quantum tunneling also means that photons with less associated energy can also trigger an electron signal that starts to build an image. This means that PAT-PD sensors — created with standard silicon — can create an image with infrared light— consisting of low-frequency, long-wavelength, low-energy photons.
Although not currently available commercially, SeeDevice has signed a licensing agreement with MegaChips to integrate its tech into their products. Other extreme low-light image capture technology does exist to provide an alternative to PAT-PD sensors and is available on the market.
SIONYX, for example, offers a range of Aurora cameras that provide color images in extreme low-light conditions. The company uses a modified type of silicon known as black silicon which exhibits low-reflectivity and high-absorption of photons to create sensors that can register infrared light effectively. The Aurora range — marketed as the first full-color digital night-vision cameras — has proved particularly useful in leisure activities like hunting, and in night-time search and rescue operations.
Additionally, other systems currently exist that can identify objects effectively in low-light conditions despite not offering an improvement in actual image production.
However, taking SeeDevice’s claims at face value, it would seem that when their PAT-PD tech becomes commercially available in the near future, it could outperform these systems, even leap-frogging black-silicon in terms of its light-capturing ability. It seems like the future is bright for smartphone cameras.
Sources and Further Reading
PAT-PD, , SeeDevice, [https://seedevice.com/]
SIONYX, , [https://www.sionyx.com/]