September 30, 2005 - Researchers at Rice University have found a new way to convert light into electrical impulses (and back again), potentially leading to revolutionary breakthroughs in optical computing and image sensors found in digital cameras.
Using a minute, 50-nanometer gold sphere on a metal film, the researchers at Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics were able to convert light into an electrical signal. In effect, the sphere acted as a tiny antenna, converting the light into what is known as a plasmon wave, which can be detected and converted into an electrical signal. One of the researchers, Peter Norlander said that "We believe the relationship can be exploited to create nanoscale antennae that convert light into broadband electrical signals capable of carrying approximately 1 million times more data than existing interconnects."
At present, the researchers are looking at this as a way to provide an interconnection between optical computing devices and more conventional electrical ones, but the development would seem to have possible potential for photographic use. The technique may be able to be used to capture images in the same way that the CCD and CMOS sensors on conventional digital camera work: by converting light into electrical signals. But this new technique could lead to much smaller sensors, leading to higher resolution on smaller cameras.
However, it’s a little early to be throwing out your digital camera: the technique has only been demonstrated in laboratory conditions at the moment, and it will be many years before we start reviewing products that may use it.