We can learn a lot from nature in the realm of imaging. We’ve seen researchers at Washington University in St. Louis take cues from the mantis shrimp, a creature with depth perception in each eye and four times the color receptors of humans. Now, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, bioengineers are setting records with a new phototransistor that takes simple ideas from the eyes of mammals.
Phototransistors are basically light sensors. They detect intensity and wavelength of light and then release a proportionate amount of electrical energy. Traditionally, phototransistors are constructed much like other computing components – that is, on a flat metal surface. Professor Zhenqiang "Jack" Ma challenged this norm, noting the curved and flexible structure of mammalian eyes.
Ma created a phototransistor on silicon, allowing it to bend in nearly any way imaginable. "We actually can make the curve any shape we like to fit the optical system," Ma says in a Madison press release. "Currently, there's no easy way to do that."
This intuitive development approach proved to be very effective as well. Ma’s silicon phototransistor outperforms all existing phototransistors in terms of sensitivity and response time. This is partly due to its flexibility, but in fact the choice of silicon over rigid metal offers yet another advantage.
(Professor Ma’s silicon phototransistor, courtesy UW Madison and Jung-Hun Seo)
"In this structure — unlike other photodetectors — light absorption in an ultrathin silicon layer can be much more efficient because light is not blocked by any metal layers or other materials," Ma says. He envisions applications in several areas of commercial imaging, such as digital cameras, surveillance systems, smoke detectors, and even satellites. His team is currently patenting the technology.
Ma’s work was supported by the US Air Force and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. For further reading regarding funding for the University of Wisconsin, Madison and its studies, click on the link below.
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