One limit that often faces high-speed photographers is the 1/8,000 or 1/4,000 max shutter speed of their DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Fortunately, mirrorless cameras are bringing this up to 1/32,000 with the electronic shutter now in some models. However, many photographers will still revert to flash to get exposure times faster than the camera’s shutter speed is capable.
But even super fast flash durations aren’t a patch on the “Neutron” camera. Developed by a team of researchers at Columbia University in New York, it can shoot with shutter speeds as fast as a trillionth of a second. That’s one and twelve zeroes! This camera isn’t like the ones we’re used to, though. It’s designed to capture a process known as “dynamic disorder”.
Rather than try to explain what dynamic disorder is, when the folks at Columbia Engineering have described it so well, here’s how they introduce it:
Researchers are coming to understand that the best performing materials in sustainable energy applications, such as converting sunlight or waste heat to electricity, often use collective fluctuations of clusters of atoms within a much larger structure. This process is often referred to as “dynamic disorder.”
Understanding dynamic disorder in materials could lead to more energy-efficient thermoelectric devices, such as solid-state refrigerators and heat pumps, and also to better recovery of useful energy from waste heat, such as car exhausts and power station exhausts, by converting it directly to electricity. A thermoelectric device was able to take heat from radioactive plutonium and convert it to electricity to power the Mars Rover when there was not enough sunlight.
[Related reading: The Slow Mo Guys film light at 10 trillion frames per second]
The new ultra-high-speed camera is designed to monitor the position of atoms over time to understand how they flow through materials. The fast picosecond exposures required to observe this are possible thanks to a new variable shutter PDF method. And no, it’s nothing to do with Adobe. In this instance, PDF stands for “pair distribution function”.
After that, it all starts to get a bit complicated. But essentially, the 1/1,000,000,000,000 shutter speeds allow the researchers to see atoms, which normally move incomprehensibly fast, frozen in time. This is similar to what I mentioned above, with high-speed photographers using fast shutter speeds and super short flash durations to freeze their subjects in front of the camera, except on a much smaller scale.
The video above explains the basic principle of how the PDF system works and how it’s different to conventional cameras. But the ultimate goal with this isn’t to create beautiful artistic imagery. It’s to be able to study energy transfers to create more efficient means of generating electricity from waste energy, such as heat or sunlight, as a replacement for current methods of renewable energy sources and for making more efficient devices that consume energy.
Who knows, maybe it’ll even help make the kinds of cameras we use more energy efficient so we won’t have to swap batteries out so often!