Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Clever NIST/JPL technology decodes more information from single photons

It's not quite Star Trek communications—yet. But long-distance communications in space may be easier now that researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have designed a clever detector array that can extract more information than usual from single particles of light.

Described in a new paper,* the NIST/JPL array-on-a-chip easily identifies the position of the exact detector in a multi-detector system that absorbs an incoming infrared light particle, or photon.

This NIST device, 1.5 by 3 centimeters in outer dimensions, is a prototype receiver for laser communications enabling much higher data rates than conventional systems. Superconducting detectors in the center of the small square chip register the timing and position of single particles of light.

Credit: Verma and Tomlin/NIST

That's the norm for digital photography cameras, of course, but a significant improvement in these astonishingly sensitive detectors that can register a single photon. The new device also records the signal timing, as these particular single-photon detectors have always done.

The technology could be useful in optical communications in space. Lasers can transmit only very low light levels across vast distances, so signals need to contain as much information as possible.

One solution is "pulse position modulation" in which a photon is transmitted at different times and positions to encode more than the usual one bit of information. If a light source transmitted photons slightly to the left/right and up/down, for instance, then the new NIST/JPL detector array circuit could decipher the two bits of information encoded in the spatial position of the photon. Additional bits of information could be encoded by using the arrival time of the photon.

The same NIST/JPL collaboration recently produced detector arrays for the first demonstration of two-way laser communications outside Earth's orbit using the timing version of pulse position modulation.** The new NIST/JPL paper shows how to make an even larger array of detectors for future communications systems.

The new technology uses superconducting nanowire single-photon detectors. The current design can count tens of millions of photons per second but the researchers say it could be scaled up to a system capable of counting of nearly a billion photons per second with low dark (false) counts. The key innovation enabling the latest device was NIST's 2011 introduction of a new detector material, tungsten-silicide, which boosted efficiency, the ability to generate an electrical signal for each arriving photon.*** Detector efficiency now exceeds 90 percent. Other materials are less efficient and would be more difficult to incorporate into complex circuits.

The detectors superconduct at cryogenic temperatures (about minus 270 °C or minus 454 °F), and cooling needs set a limit on wiring complexity. The NIST/JPL scheme requires only twice as many wires (2N) as the number of detectors on one side of a square array (N x N), greatly reducing cooling loads compared to a one-wire-per-detector approach while maintaining high timing accuracy. NIST researchers demonstrated the scheme for a four-detector array with four wires and are now working on a 64-detector array with 16 wires.

In the circuit, each detector is located in a specific column and row of the square array. Each detector acts like an electrical switch. When the detector is in the superconducting state, the switch is closed and the current is equally distributed among all detectors in that column. When a detector absorbs a photon, the switch opens, temporarily diverting the current to an amplifier for the affected column while reducing the signal through the affected row. As a result, the circuit generates a voltage spike in the column readout and a voltage dip in the row readout. The active detector is at the intersection of the active column and row.

The research was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

V.B. Verma, R. Horansky, F. Marsili, J.A. Stern, M.D. Shaw, A.E. Lita, R.P. Mirin and S.W. Nam. A four-pixel single-photon pulse position camera fabricated from WSi superconducting nanowire single photon detectors. Applied Physics Letters 104, 051115. DOI: 10.1063/1.4864075. Posted online Feb. 4, 2014.

See Oct. 28, 2013, National Aeronautics and Space Administration news release, "Historic Demonstration Proves Laser Communication Possible," at

See 2011 NIST Tech Beat article, "Key Ingredient: Change in Material Boosts Prospects of Ultrafast Single-photon Detector," at

Laura Ost | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Tracking down the 'missing' carbon from the Martian atmosphere
25.11.2015 | California Institute of Technology

nachricht Iowa State astronomers say comet fragments best explanation of mysterious dimming star
25.11.2015 | Iowa State University

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Climate study finds evidence of global shift in the 1980s

Planet Earth experienced a global climate shift in the late 1980s on an unprecedented scale, fuelled by anthropogenic warming and a volcanic eruption, according to new research published this week.

Scientists say that a major step change, or ‘regime shift’, in the Earth’s biophysical systems, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from...

Im Focus: Innovative Photovoltaics – from the Lab to the Façade

Fraunhofer ISE Demonstrates New Cell and Module Technologies on its Outer Building Façade

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...

Im Focus: Lactate for Brain Energy

Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.

In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...

Im Focus: Laser process simulation available as app for first time

In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.

Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...

Im Focus: Quantum Simulation: A Better Understanding of Magnetism

Heidelberg physicists use ultracold atoms to imitate the behaviour of electrons in a solid

Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Fraunhofer’s Urban Futures Conference: 2 days in the city of the future

25.11.2015 | Event News

Gluten oder nicht Gluten? Überempfindlichkeit auf Weizen kann unterschiedliche Ursachen haben

17.11.2015 | Event News

Art Collection Deutsche Börse zeigt Ausstellung „Traces of Disorder“

21.10.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Using sphere packing models to explain the structure of forests

26.11.2015 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation

Dimensionality transition in a newly created material

26.11.2015 | Materials Sciences

Revealing glacier flow with animated satellite images

26.11.2015 | Earth Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>