Everything’s cooler in slow motion, but high frame-rate photography is an essential tool for scientists studying phenomena that occur in the blink of an eye. Researchers at Lund University have just revealed the fastest high-speed camera ever developed that can capture the equivalent of an astonishing five trillion frames every second, fast enough to visualise the movement of light.
At those speeds, events that take place in as little as 0.2 trillionths of a second can be documented and studied at a speed that humans can comprehend. To help demonstrate just how fast that really is, the researchers used the new camera to film a group of photons travelling about as far as a piece of paper is thick, making it seem as if the light particles were barely moving, instead of racing past at 1.08 billion km/h.
As you might imagine, the technology that allows cameras like this to capture so many frames every second is radically different to how film cameras, or even modern digital cameras, work. The camera doesn’t actually snap away for a full second — capturing five trillion frames that quickly would require a roll of film that was kilometres long. Besides, the events it’s designed to capture are over in less than a picosecond; about one trillionth the time it takes you to say “one Mississippi”.
Instead, the record-breaking high-speed camera uses another innovative trick to achieve its astounding speeds. Every frame of film that’s recorded actually contains four separate images, captured one after the other, created by flashing a laser at the subject with each light pulse featuring a unique “code” that allows the combined images to be later decoded and separated using an encryption key.
The researchers, Elias Kristensson and Andreas Ehn, have called the new technology FRAME — or Frequency Recognition Algorithm for Multiple Exposures — as detailed in a paper published in the journal Light: Science and Applications. By maximising how each frame of film is used, the researchers have not only been able to increase capture speeds (more frames per second means more frames needed to capture to every second), they should also be able to capture longer sequences with more detail.
So what do researchers Elias Kristensson and Andreas Ehn hope to reveal with this new technology? When they’re not developing cameras, the pair study combustion, and are hoping their creation gives them insights into how to improve gas-powered engines by finally revealing the complex chemical reactions happening at the molecular level when fuel is burned.
But high-speed cameras, especially ones that can reveal the interactions and motions of light particles, promise to lead to improvements in everything from telecommunications, to the processors powering all of your electronics. The new camera’s creators have already worked with a German company to develop a working prototype of the technology, and they estimate it will only be a couple of years before other researchers can get their hands on one, too. One day, such technology might even help sports referees make a decent call every once in a while.