"Lights, camera, action!" has taken on a new meaning with a camera said to be the world's fastest, capable of filming at the mind-boggling speed of 100 billion frames a second.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., say their camera, which they describe as the world's fastest 2D receive-only camera, attains its incredible speed through a technique they've dubbed compressed ultrafast photography.
It far outpaces current high-speed cameras that top out at about 10 million frames per second, limited by their on-chip storage and electronic readout speed, they explain.
Their camera can capture a photon of light in flight and convert what it sees into a 2D image on a computer, the researchers report in the journal Nature.
"For the first time, humans can see light pulses on the fly," says biomedical engineering Professor Lihong Wang.
"Because this technique advances the imaging frame rate by orders of magnitude, we now enter a new regime to open up new visions," he says.
In the Washington University system, a device known as a streak camera is set up with a microscope or telescope paired with special lenses to capture an event.
Streak cameras can capture the movement of light, but only in a single dimension, which "is not intuitive -- much analogous to watching a horse race through a distant vertical slit," Wang says.
"We expanded the view into 2D space, more like what we see in the real world."
The breakthrough of the WU researchers was to add components and computer algorithms that can convert what the streak camera sees into raw data that, once acquired, is turned into an actual 2D image by a computer, in a technique known as computational imaging.
The compressed ultrafast photography technology could yield significant new findings in fields as varied as biomedicine, forensics and astronomy, Wang says.
"Each new technique, especially one of a quantum leap forward, is always followed [by] a number of new discoveries," he says. "It's our hope that CUP will enable new discoveries in science -- ones that we can't even anticipate yet."
In astronomy, the technology could allow scientists to analyze cosmic phenomena such as supernovae in detail never possible before, he suggests, or even track the movements of thousands of potentially hazardous pieces of "space junk" in order to predict any that might present a hazard to Earth.
"Combine CUP imaging with the Hubble Telescope, and we will have both the sharpest spatial resolution of the Hubble and the highest temporal solution with CUP," Wang said. "That combination is bound to discover new science."