At 1 trillion frames per second this ultrafast new camera can record light waves and much more

A new camera can take up to 1 trillion pictures per second, focusing on the previously elusive: capturing the invisible

Over a year ago, Lihong Wang, a professor at Caltech, revolutionized imaging with a camera capable of snapping 10 trillion frames per second. This speed allowed it to capture light itself in slow motion. However, speed alone isn't always enough. Even the fastest camera can't record what it can't see.

To tackle this, Wang, Bren Professor of Medical Engineering and Electrical Engineering, has developed a new camera that can take up to 1 trillion pictures per second, focusing on the previously elusive: transparent objects. This innovation, detailed in Science Advances, opens new frontiers in capturing the invisible.

Wang’s latest invention, phase-sensitive compressed ultrafast photography (pCUP), can photograph transparent materials and fleeting phenomena like shockwaves and potentially even neural signals. This new imaging system merges high-speed photography with a century-old technique called phase-contrast microscopy, invented by Dutch physicist Frits Zernike.

Phase-contrast microscopy leverages the varying speeds of light as it travels through different materials. For instance, when light passes through glass, it slows down and then speeds up as it exits. This change in speed affects the light wave's timing. By using specific optical adjustments, scientists can distinguish light that passed through glass from light that didn’t, making the transparent material more visible.

Wang’s breakthrough adapts this principle to achieve extremely fast imaging, enabling the visualization of ultrafast events in transparent substances. “What we’ve done is to adapt standard phase-contrast microscopy so that it provides very fast imaging, allowing us to image ultrafast phenomena in transparent materials,” Wang explains.

The fast-imaging component of the system, known as lossless encoding compressed ultrafast technology (LLE-CUP), stands out in its approach. Unlike typical ultrafast video technologies that record multiple images sequentially and require repeating events, LLE-CUP captures everything in a single shot.


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This single-shot method is crucial because it can capture incredibly rapid motions, such as light pulses, which would be missed by conventional cameras due to their slower imaging speed.

In their research, Wang and his team demonstrated the power of pCUP by capturing the spread of a shockwave in water and the journey of a laser pulse through a crystalline material. These examples underscore the potential of pCUP to visualize processes that are otherwise invisible.

Though still in its early stages, pCUP holds promise across various scientific fields, including physics, biology, and chemistry. Wang envisions its application in neuroscience, particularly in observing the slight expansion of nerve fibers as signals pass through them. “If we have a network of neurons, maybe we can see their communication in real time,” he says. The technology could also visualize how a flame front spreads in a combustion chamber, given that phase contrast changes with temperature.

The groundbreaking paper titled “Picosecond-resolution phase-sensitive imaging of transparent objects in a single shot” lists co-authors Taewoo Kim, a postdoctoral scholar in medical engineering, and former Caltech researchers Jinyang Liang and Liren Zhu. This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Wang's affiliation with the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech underscores his commitment to advancing our understanding of the brain. As the development of pCUP continues, its ability to reveal the unseen could usher in new scientific discoveries and applications, making the invisible, visible.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by Ohio State University. Content may be edited for style and length.

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Joshua Shavit
Joshua ShavitScience and Good News Writer
Joshua Shavit is a bright and enthusiastic 17-year-old student with a passion for sharing positive stories that uplift and inspire. With a flair for writing and a deep appreciation for the beauty of human kindness, Joshua has embarked on a journey to spotlight the good news that happens around the world daily. His youthful perspective and genuine interest in spreading positivity make him a promising writer and co-founder at The Brighter Side of News.