New Neutron Camera has a Shutter Speed of One Trillionth of a Second

Researchers have created a new camera that features a shutter speed so fast, it can see atomic structures without blur.

The researchers, who are from Columbia Engineering and Université de Bourgogne, have developed a new kind of “camera” that sees atomic clusters. Called “local disorder,” these dynamic atomic clusters are usually blurry when captured with cameras that have a slower shutter speed, but using this new “neutron” camera, they become clear.

According to Phys, the research is helping scientists understand the materials that are best for sustainable energy applications — like those that convert sunlight or waste heat to electricity — as they often use collective fluctuations of clusters of atoms within a larger structure (that’s what is referred to as dynamic disorder). If scientists are better able to understand dynamic disorder, they could pinpoint materials that would be more energy efficient in thermoelectric devices.

That’s where the neutron camera comes in, which is different from the system introduced a few years ago that could capture 70 trillion frames per second. The team describes it as working like a regular camera, only on timescales which it says are a million times faster. Neutron scattering snapshots are taken while varying the shutter speed from slow to fast.

neutron camera

That variable shutter speed is the key. Instead of working like a typical camera does, this new camera uses neutrons to measure atomic positions with a shutter speed of around one picosecond, which is a trillion times faster than conventional camera shutters. The team refers to it as variable shutter PDF, or vsPDF, in a study published on Nature Materials.

The researchers say that with this method, they were able to reveal previously hidden dynamics of a crystal’s structure.

neutron camera

“What we found here is an exceptional example, showing surfaces of a crystalline material can actually be amorphous and dynamic. We need to rigorously revisit some of our basic assumptions in the surface science community,” Sichi Li, lead author of the paper, says.

“It’s only with this new vsPDF tool that we can really see this side of materials,” Simon Billinge, professor of materials science and applied physics and applied mathematics, says.

“It gives us a whole new way to untangle the complexities of what is going on in complex materials, hidden effects that can supercharge their properties. With this technique, we’ll be able to watch a material and see which atoms are in the dance and which are sitting it out.”

Image credits: Dynamic crystallography reveals spontaneous anisotropy in cubic GeTe