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Supercomputing Encryption Security Science Technology

Simple Mod Turns Diodes Into Photon Counters 118

KentuckyFC writes "The standard way to detect single photons is to use an avalanche photodiode in which a single photon can trigger an avalanche of current. These devices have an important drawback, however. They cannot distinguish the arrival of a single photon from the simultaneous arrival of two or more. But a team of physicists in the UK has found a simple mod that turns avalanche photodiodes into photon counters. They say that in the first instants after the avalanche forms, its current is proportional to the number of photons that have struck. All you have to do is measure it at this early stage. That's like turning a Fiat 500 into a Ferrari. Photon counting is one of the enabling technologies behind optical quantum computing. A number of schemes are known in which it is necessary to count the arrival of 0, 1 or 2 photons at specific detectors (abstract). With such a cheap detector now available (as well as decent photon guns), we could see dramatic progress in this field in the coming months."
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Simple Mod Turns Diodes Into Photon Counters

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  • Cooled devices? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by EmagGeek ( 574360 ) <(gterich) (at) (> on Tuesday July 08, 2008 @10:29AM (#24099877) Journal

    Cheap, cooled devices...

    They don't go into a whole lot of detail on what they mean by "cooled devices." This smells an awful lot like "you have to spend a ton of money to save a tiny bit of money."

    If these things have to be cooled with some liquefied gas, then I suppose any cost savings on the material or approach would be quickly eaten up by energy used to cool them... just a hunch...

  • by Dr.Pete ( 1021137 ) on Tuesday July 08, 2008 @10:51AM (#24100197) Journal
    This kind of gorgeous tweaking gives me warm feelings inside. Shields has taken a common device used in the field and, through a deep understanding of the physics of its operations, has increased it's functionality without much additional complexity. From the paper he says he cools the device thermo-electrically to -30 deg. C. Thermo-electric cooling is far nicer than cryogenic cooling (typ. using liquid gasses for heat exchange) used in other devices for photon number counting. Further, the method only introduces electronic capacitance subtraction of the photodiode response which is relatively simple compared to other methods (e.g. [] which uses the nonlinear response of a crystal and a massive amount of supporting optics and electronics). This subtraction gives orders of magnitude greater sensitivity and allows the time response of the initial avalanche to be extracted from which photon numbers can be counted. One of those wonderful, "why didn't I think of that", insights. Very nice.
  • Re:Cooled devices? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mapsjanhere ( 1130359 ) on Tuesday July 08, 2008 @11:06AM (#24100413)
    You can buy a single photon counter optimized at 680 nm that works at RT. Unfortunately, they are $5k a pop. This way of using avalanche diodes for counting enables a lot of new technologies.
    Years ago we played with detecting high energy particles in a grid of scintillating fibers, but for a high precision array you just couldn't afford the detectors. Now I guess I can revisit that if the technology pans out.
  • by spike_gran ( 219938 ) on Tuesday July 08, 2008 @11:44AM (#24101043)

    This is pretty neat.

    I used avalanche photo diodes as cheap photon counters back in university a decade ago. In our case, however, we would quench the diode after each count and allow it to reset. This works fine except that it severly limits the rate at which photons can be counted and doesn't distinguish when multiple photons arrive simultaneously.

    So this is a cool extension to that technology.

  • by fyngyrz ( 762201 ) * on Tuesday July 08, 2008 @01:11PM (#24102493) Homepage Journal

    Smells like a wonderful technology to implement as part of a camera sensor (when dealing with very low light, such as in astrophotography, nightshots of nature, etc.)

    Canon's got the "switchable capacitor well" patent hanging in reserve, and it looks like they're going to have to use it with Nikon's new D700 going ASA 6400 and pushing all the way to 25600; but I wonder just how far you could take a camera's sensitivity if you had *accurate* photon counting... imagine a photodetector that counts photons as they arrive and simply increments a large counter. This would literally be a "digital" sensor, rather than an analog one. Precision light sensors. Mmmmm-good. :-)

    I like wide-field astrophotography []. I'd be all over a (relatively) affordable DSLR that could really do low light in a precise manner. Right now, you have to spend about three grand to get a camera body that can go to an honest ISO 6400; if they could get the price in or around that area with something that was effectively counting all the photons... Oy.

    Have to do something about the color and IR filters, too. Swing them out of the way or something equally tricky. Maybe some variation on a single-well, filterless approach like the Foveon one [].

  • Can some less physics challenged person enlighten me as to how we can actually manipulate a single photon. That to me seems to be such a small amount of energy as to be undetectable. I mean if I remember correctly, if you bounce one electron down from one high level to a lower level on one atom, then, it would give off one photon... and getting one atom to do that seems rather a tall challenge..

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 08, 2008 @06:11PM (#24107057)

    You know how you get that grainy effect in your vision under very low light conditions with well adjusted night vision? That's quantum noise due to individual photons hitting your eye [].

  • by Raenex ( 947668 ) on Tuesday July 08, 2008 @07:03PM (#24107855)

    You know how you get that grainy effect in your vision under very low light conditions with well adjusted night vision? That's quantum noise due to individual photons hitting your eye [].

    Very interesting. From the link:

    "Vision appears very noisy in near darkness, that is, the image appears to be filled with a continually changing grainy pattern. This results from the image signal being very weak, and is not a limitation of the eye. There is so little light entering the eye, the random detection of individual photons can be seen. This is called statistical noise, and is encountered in all low-light imaging, such as military night vision systems."

"An organization dries up if you don't challenge it with growth." -- Mark Shepherd, former President and CEO of Texas Instruments