World's Fastest Camera Can See Light Moving in Slow Motion

The trillion-frame-per-second compressed ultrafast photography system. INRS

Scientists from Caltech and the University of Québec (UQ) have developed the world's fastest camera, which is capable of capturing a record-breaking 10 trillion frames per second.

Incredibly, the imaging system enables researchers to track the movement of light beams—in the form of laser pulses—frame by frame, according to a paper published in the journal Light: Science & Applications. These ultrashort laser pulses have time durations in the order of a femtosecond, or one quadrillionth of a second.

"To our knowledge, this is by far the fastest camera ever built in the world," Jinyang Liang, an author of the study from the Laboratory of Applied Computational Imaging at UQ, told Newsweek.

The speed that the researchers achieved is double that of the previous record holder—a camera developed by a group of Swedish scientists which is capable of capturing 5 trillion frames per second.

The authors of the latest study say that their camera makes it possible to analyze the interactions between light and matter at an unprecedented temporal resolution—an ability that could have numerous beneficial applications in a host of fields, ranging from biomedicine to materials science.

To develop their system, the team used an already available technology, called "compressed ultrafast photography," as a starting point. CUP systems are capable of capturing 100 billion frames per second using what's known as a streak camera—an instrument for measuring the variation in a pulse of light's intensity with time.

But the CUP system on its own is not sufficient to effectively image femtosecond-scale laser pulses, according to the researchers. At present, measurements taken with ultrashort laser pulses must be repeated many times.

"We knew that by using only a femtosecond streak camera, the image quality would be limited," Lihong Wang, director of the Caltech Optical Imaging Laboratory (COIL) and an author of the study, said in a statement.

"So, to improve this, we added another camera that acquires a static image. Combined with the image acquired by the femtosecond streak camera, we can use what is called a 'Radon transformation' to obtain high-quality images while recording 10 trillion frames per second."

Real-time imaging of a femtosecond laser pulse at 2.5 Tfps. Jinyang Liang, Liren Zhu & Lihong V. Wang

During the first trials with the ultrafast camera, the researchers were able to capture images of a single femtosecond laser pulse across 25 frames, taken at intervals of 400 femtoseconds. No repeated measurements were required, unlike similar systems. The resulting images were then fed into a computer program to create a movie, enabling the team to view the movement of the pulse in slow motion.

"It's an achievement in itself," Liang said in the statement. "But we already see possibilities for increasing the speed to up to one quadrillion frames per second!"

Such speeds could provide fascinating new insights into interactions between light and matter, which are currently beyond our observational capabilities.

"Besides the benefits from system innovation, [the imaging system] will allowing direct visualization of many instantaneous phenomena that was not possible before," Liang said. "A few possible applications include irreversible chemical reactions and nanostructure dynamics."

This article has been updated to include additional comments from Jinyang Liang.