Super Sensitive Sensor Sees What You Can't : All Tech Considered Engineers at Dartmouth College have developed a computer chip that can detect a single particle of light. Cameras with the chip would have visual abilities even a superhero would envy.

Super Sensitive Sensor Sees What You Can't

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A team of engineers at Dartmouth College has invented a semiconductor chip that could someday give the camera in your phone the kind of vision a superhero would envy. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca tells us more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: To anybody with a smartphone, this is a very familiar sound.


PALCA: The camera on your phone uses something called CMOS image sensor technology.

ERIC FOSSUM: There's about 4 billion cameras made every year with that CMOS image sensor technology.

PALCA: Scientist, engineer and inventor Eric Fossum came up with this technology about 25 years ago when he was working at NASA. The CMOS chip turns light into electrical signals that can be processed to form digital images. Now Fossum has come up with a new chip that can run rings around his old chip. It's so sensitive that it can see a single particle of light known as a photon.

FOSSUM: What this chip can do because it's sensitive to single photons is it can see in the dimmest possible light.

PALCA: To give a better sense of how dim that is, Fossum says a regular light bulb produces more than a billion billion photons per second. So a single photon is pretty darn dim. And by collecting all these individual photons, the new chip will allow super sharp images.

Other inventors have come up with chips that can see single photons, but they tend to be expensive to make and operate. Fossum's chip works at room temperature and uses standard manufacturing tools. He described his new chip in the journal Optica. Sara Jensen is a micro-electric engineer at the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

SARA JENSEN: Yeah, it's really cool. I went and kind of shared the paper around with some of the people I worked with in the camera field. And they were really excited about it. So I think it's a really big deal.

PALCA: As impressive as it may be, don't expect to see the new chip in your cellphone anytime soon. Fossum says it was more than two decades before his CMOS chip was in common use. He says the new chip is probably on a similar time track.

FOSSUM: Maybe even a slower track because strangely, I'm trying to compete against myself with this new technology. The existing technology - my technology - is still pretty good.

PALCA: Fossum is betting his new technology will become popular. He's formed a company to start marketing it. Joe Palca, NPR News.

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