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Novel image sensor shows promise in IoT, life sciences

Posted: 13 Oct 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Thayer School of Engineering? image sensor? QIS? CMOS? IoT?

A professor-student duo from Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering has made significant headway in what they describe as an innovation that could pave the way for the next generation of light-sensing technology with latent applications in scientific research and cell phone photography.

Eric Fossum, the engineer and physicist who invented the CMOS image sensor that made possible the billions of cell phone and digital cameras today, joined forces with PhD candidate Jiaju Ma in developing pixels for the quanta image sensor (QIS).

The professor and student have worked together on the project for more than three years, are co-inventors of the novel pixel, and shared authorship of a June 2015 paper on their invention, published in IEEE Electron Device Letters.

Their sensor has the capability to significantly enhance low-light sensitivity. This is particularly important in applications such as "security cameras, astronomy, or life science imaging (like seeing how cells react under a microscope), where there's only just a few photons," said Fossum.

"Light consists of photons, little bullets of light that activate our neurons and make us see light," he said. "The photons go into the semiconductor [the sensor chip] and break the chemical bonds between silicon atoms and, when they break the bond, an electron is released. Almost every photon that comes in makes one electron free inside the silicon crystal. The brighter the light, the more electrons are released."

Eric Fossum and Jiaju Ma

Eric Fossum and Jiaju Ma have worked together on the project for more than three years, are co-inventors of the new pixel, and shared authorship of a June 2015 paper on their invention. (Photo by Robert Gill)

Fossum said one of the challenges in the QIS is to count how many electrons are set free by photons and thus effectively count photons. This is particularly important in very low light applications, such as in life science microscopy, photography, or even possibly quantum cryptography and what's being called the "Internet of Things."

"When we build an image sensor, we build a chip that is also sensitive to these photons. We were able to build a new kind of pixel with a sensitivity so high we could see one electron above all the background noise."

The new pixels are considerably smaller than regular pixels since they are designed to sense only one photon, but many more are placed on the sensor to capture the same number of total photons from the image. "We'd like to have one billion pixels on the sensor and we'll still keep the sensor the same size," noted Ma.

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