The fastest camera ever created has been revealed with a shutter speed of a half billionth of a second. It can capture over six million images every second continuously.According to a report by the BBC, researchers for the journal Nature have demonstrated the imaging system this week designed for use in capturing fast-moving objects or unpredictable events at a microscopic level.

“Its Flashbulb is a fast laser pulse dispersed in space and then stretched in time and detected electronically”, they reported, “Dubbed Serial Time-Encoded Amplified imaging, or Steam, the technique depends on carefully manipulating so-called “supercontinuum” laser pulses.”

The pulses are less than a millionth of a millionth of a second in length containing a wide range of colours.  Two optical elements spread the laser into an ordered 2D rainbow.  Part of the rainbow is reflected by the subject being shot with the reflection travelling back through the optics to be interpreted electronically into an image. 

“Bright spots reflect their assigned wavelength but dark ones don’t,” explained Bahram Jalali, the University of California, Los Angeles professor who led the research. “When the 2-D rainbow reflects from the object, the image is copied onto the colour spectrum of the pulse.”

To interpret the reflected light into an image, it travels down a fibre optic cable which separates the different colours so they hit the photodiode at different times.  Each colour travels at different speeds down the fibre optic so they pop out at the other end and are then digitised.  The result is an image that represents a snapshot of 440 trillionths of a second.


While the researchers have currently achieved six million pulses a second, they claim that they are working to improve that to 10 million per second, which is 200,000 times faster than a standard video camera.

The system is also currently limited to 2D images but they are confident that it can be extended to capture 3D images at the same high resolution and speed with further research.

Obviously, this camera is most useful in studying biology as it is capable of recording microscopic subjects with pin point accuracy.  Since it is a continuous shooting camera, it can record things like fast flowing blood cells while taking images of each blood cell as it pumps its way around the body. Until now, in order to examine something like blood, you would need to take a sample and photograph it.

“But, what if you needed to detect the presence of very rare cells that, although few in number, signify early stages of a disease?,” asks Keisuke Goda, lead author of the study in talking to the BBC, “The chance that one of these cells will happen to be on the small sample of blood viewed under a microscope is virtually negligible.”

Dr Goda cites circulating tumour cells as a perfect example of such a target. Precursors to metastasis, only a few may exist among a billion healthy cells.

In addition to moving into 3D imagery, the research team is also looking to improve the system so it can take images of the inner structures of cells.

For more see www.bbc.com.co.uk/technology

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