Trillion-frame-per-second video camera is world’s fastest

December 13, 2011

A time-lapse visualization of the spherical fronts of advancing light (credit: MIT Media Lab)

MIT researchers have created a new imaging system that can acquire visual data at a rate of one trillion exposures per second.

Media Lab postdoc Andreas Velten, one of the system’s developers, calls it the “ultimate” in slow motion: “There’s nothing in the universe that looks fast to this camera,” he says.

The system relies on a recent technology called a streak camera, a $250,000 device deployed in a totally unexpected way. The aperture of the streak camera is a narrow slit. Photons enter the camera through the slit and pass through an electric field that deflects them in a direction perpendicular to the slit. Because the electric field is changing very rapidly, it deflects late-arriving photons more than it does early-arriving ones.

The image produced by the camera is thus two-dimensional, but only one of the dimensions — the one corresponding to the direction of the slit — is spatial. The other dimension, corresponding to the degree of deflection, is time. The image thus represents the time of arrival of photons passing through a one-dimensional slice of space.

The camera was intended for use in experiments where light passes through or is emitted by a chemical sample. Since chemists are chiefly interested in the wavelengths of light that a sample absorbs, or in how the intensity of the emitted light changes over time, the fact that the camera registers only one spatial dimension is irrelevant.

But it’s a serious drawback in a video camera. To produce their super-slow-mo videos, Velten, Media Lab Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar and Moungi Bawendi, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry, must perform the same experiment — such as passing a light pulse through a bottle — over and over, continually repositioning the streak camera to gradually build up a two-dimensional image.

Synchronizing the camera and the laser that generates the pulse, so that the timing of every exposure is the same, requires a battery of sophisticated optical equipment and exquisite mechanical control. It takes only a nanosecond for light to scatter through a bottle, but it takes about an hour to collect all the data necessary for the final video. For that reason, Raskar calls the new system “the world’s slowest fastest camera.”

Because the ultrafast-imaging system requires multiple passes to produce its videos, it can’t record events that aren’t exactly repeatable. Any practical applications will probably involve cases where the way in which light scatters — or bounces around as it strikes different surfaces — is itself a source of useful information. Those cases may, however, include analyses of the physical structure of both manufactured materials and biological tissues — “like ultrasound with light,” as Raskar puts it.

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