The world’s fastest video camera

Can capture rapid processes in chemistry, physics, biology and biomedicine that so far have never been caught on film
May 6, 2017

Elias Kristensson and Andreas Ehn (credit: Kennet Ruona)

A research group at Lund University in Sweden has developed a video camera* that can record at a rate equivalent to five trillion images per second, or events as short as 0.2 trillionths of a second. This is far faster than has previously been possible (100,000 images per second).

The new super-fast camera can capture rapid processes in chemistry, physics, biology and biomedicine that so far have not been caught on film.

To illustrate the technology, the researchers have successfully filmed how light travels a distance corresponding to the thickness of paper. In reality, it only takes a picosecond, but the process has been slowed down by a trillion times.

Currently, high-speed cameras capture images one by one in a sequence. The new technology is based on an innovative algorithm, and instead captures several coded images in one picture. It then sorts them into a video sequence afterwards.

Coded flashes

The method involves exposing what you are recording (for example a chemical reaction) to light in the form of laser flashes, where each light pulse is given a unique code. The object reflects the light flashes, which merge into the single photograph. They are subsequently separated by detecting the keys.

The camera is initially intended to be used by researchers who literally want to gain better insight into many of the extremely rapid processes that occur in nature. Many take place on a picosecond and femtosecond scale.

“This does not apply to all processes in nature, but quite a few, for example, explosions, plasma flashes, turbulent combustion, brain activity in animals and chemical reactions. We are now able to ‘film’ such extremely short processes”, says professor Elias Kristensson. “In the long term, the technology can also be used by industry and others.”

“Today, the only way to visualize such rapid events is to photograph still images of the process. You then have to attempt to repeat identical experiments to provide several still images which can later be edited into a movie. The problem with this approach is that it is highly unlikely that a process will be identical if you repeat the experiment”, he says.

The researchers are currently conducting research on combustion — an area known to be difficult and complicated to study. The ultimate purpose of this basic research is to make next-generation car engines, gas turbines, and boilers cleaner and more fuel-efficient. Combustion is controlled by a number of ultra-fast processes at the molecular level, which can now be captured.

For example, the researchers will study the chemistry of plasma discharges, the lifetime of quantum states in combustion environments and in biological tissue, as well as how chemical reactions are initiated.

The research has been published in the journal Light: Science and Applications. A German company has already developed a prototype of the technology, which should be available commercially in two years.

* The technology, named FRAME (Frequency Recognition Algorithm for Multiple Exposures), uses a  camera with a flash, using “coded” light flashes, as a form of encryption. Every time a coded light flash hits the object — for example, a chemical reaction in a burning flame — the object emits an image signal (response) with the exact same coding. The following light flashes all have different codes, and the image signals are captured in one single photograph. These coded image signals are subsequently separated using an encryption key on a computer.