A French SME has created the world's fastest and most sensitive infrared scientific camera with support from EU funding. Initially developed for astronomy, the technology is expected to find numerous applications in research and industry.
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As astronomers look forward to a new generation of ever-larger telescopes such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) to be constructed on a mountain in Chile the problem of the distorting effects of the Earths atmosphere becomes more pressing.
Atmospheric turbulence causes the blurring of telescope images, but researchers within the EU-funded OCAMIR project have now developed a fast and sensitive infrared scientific camera that can help astronomers compensate for this using a technique known as adaptive optics.
The company behind the project, First Light Imaging, is a spin-off from French astronomical institutes Laboratoire dAstrophysique de Marseille (LAM) and Institut de Planétologie et dAstrophysique de Grenoble (IPAG). It has already produced a high-speed visible light camera called OCAM, developed with support from the EUs Opticon network for astronomical instrumentation.
OCAM, for visible light, is the fastest low-noise camera in the world today and we wanted to do the same for the infrared, says Cécile Brun, First Lights marketing manager. It is very important for astronomers to have access to infrared technologies.
3 500 images a second
Infrared scientific cameras are not new, but until now there has been a trade-off between frame rate and sensitivity. The new OCAMIR camera, which is being marketed as C-RED One, has both. It can take up to 3 500 images a second while maintaining high sensitivity. It operates at wavelengths from 0.8 to 2.5 micrometres in the short-wave infrared (SWIR) region of the spectrum.
At the heart of C-RED One is an innovative sensor developed in the UK by Leonardo SpA known as an e-APD array which can reliably detect single photons with very little background noise.
Conventional astronomical infrared cameras are cooled with liquid nitrogen to reduce noise, but the nitrogen needs replenishing every few hours. C-RED One uses a pulse tube thermoelectric cooler instead, which allows the camera to operate continuously at equally low temperatures for long periods.
While initial use will predominantly be in astronomy two cameras have already been delivered to US universities and a third is on order for a French institution Brun sees the potential market as much wider. We know that the outstanding performance of the camera will open unexpected fields of applications and we are still working to find them.
European alternative to US technology
First Light are actively seeking applications in biomedical fields such as fluorescence microscopy, non-invasive surgery and in vivo imaging but the camera may find other niches from manufacturing and quality control in industry to art inspection and counterfeit detection.
A second and more compact infrared camera, C-RED 2, is based on C-RED One but with a different sensor and designed for robust industrial applications. It is expected to be launched on the market later in 2017.
Globally the market for short-wave infrared imaging technology is growing rapidly and is forecast to approach $120 million (€112 million) by 2022, says Brun. Until now it has been dominated by US firms, and the potential military applications of infrared sensors have hampered European companies who wish to use US components in their products.
Brun says the cameras developed by First Light could be the beginnings of an indigenous European infrared imaging sector independent of the US. Working on OCAMIR has given our company very good knowledge of the infrared market.
OCAMIR received funding under a Horizon 2020 scheme to help SMEs take part in space-related research. Without the support we would have done it less quickly and less well, says Brun. It was a real booster for our project.