New Ultrafast Camera Snaps A Trillion Images A Second And Detects Movement In Transparent Materials


Rachel Baxter

Copy Editor & Staff Writer

A laser passing through a crystalline material imaged by the new camera. Caltech

How do you take a picture of a shockwave rippling through water? Or movement inside almost entirely transparent objects like the teeny water-filled cells in our bodies? It’s certainly not easy, but a new camera can do just that. Developed by Caltech engineer Lihong Wang, the camera takes an impressive trillion pictures per second of transparent objects.

Wang previously developed the world’s fastest camera, which can snap up to 10 trillion images per second. To give you a sense of how astonishing that is, it means it can record light traveling in slow motion. Wang’s latest camera isn’t quite as speedy, taking a trillion pictures each second, but it allows him to image objects that are mostly transparent.


He calls his system phase-sensitive compressed ultrafast photography (pCUP), and it combines high-speed photography with phase-contrast microscopy, a not-so-new method that helps scientists view mostly transparent objects like cells under the microscope. This kind of microscopy is based on the fact that light changes speed depending on what kind of material it’s zooming through.

The fast-imaging technology the camera uses is called lossless encoding compressed ultrafast technology, or LLE-CUP for short. Most super-fast video-imaging tech takes lots of separate images and stitches them together, but Wang’s new system records what it sees in a single shot, rapidly capturing very fast motion.

"What we've done is to adapt standard phase-contrast microscopy so that it provides very fast imaging, which allows us to image ultrafast phenomena in transparent materials," Wang said in a statement.

So far, Wang has managed to image a shockwave spreading through water, which, of course, is transparent, and a laser pulse traveling through crystalline material. The resulting videos showcase the new tech’s impressive ability to image ultra-fast, hard-to-capture phenomena. It can record the movement of light itself, which is too rapid to be picked up by more traditional types of cameras.

A shockwave spreading through water. Caltech

The new technology is described in the journal Science Advances, and the team behind it believe it could have many exciting applications in different scientific fields, although they do note it’s still early days for their camera system.

"As signals travel through neurons, there is a minute dilation of nerve fibers that we hope to see. If we have a network of neurons, maybe we can see their communication in real time," explained Wang, adding that the camera may even “be able to image how a flame front spreads in a combustion chamber."

A laser pulse whizzing through a crystalline material. Caltech