Sandia opens up ultra-fast X-ray cameras to speedy shutterbugs

Seriously, this tech makes your phone camera look like it's from the stone age

To capture fast moving objects — say a cheetah sprinting across the savanna — it's not uncommon for photographers to employ shutter speeds as high as 1/8000th of a second.

But what if you're trying to capture something a bit faster? An ignition event at the heart of a fusion reactor, for example. For that, you'll need a high-speed X-ray camera capable of capturing images a million times faster.

The problem is, despite ongoing public and private efforts to develop a working fusion reactor, X-ray cameras of this sort aren't exactly the kind of thing you can pick up at your local camera exchange or darkroom.

Sandia first introduced its ultra-fast X-ray imager in 2016. The camera's sensor was fast enough to capture an image in 1.5 nanoseconds — or according to the lab, about 25 times faster than the best digital cameras in the world.

Up to this point these scientific instruments have been manufactured for Department of Energy (DoE) labs at Sandia's MESA semiconductor fab — a process that can take six to nine months to complete. And because these cameras are secondary to MESA's primary mission to produce chips for use in the US nuclear strategic reserve, their production may have to take a back seat depending on fab capacity.

But as these X-ray camera systems become more important to advancing nuclear fusion and other technologies, which benefit from high-speed imagining, Sandia is looking to make them more accessible to a wider audience. To that end, the lab is working with Albuquerque, New Mexico-based startup called Advanced hCMOS to produce a new line of x-ray imaging systems.

The project is being funded under the TRGR technology readiness initiative in partnership with the state of New Mexico and Los Alamos National Laboratory to extend opportunities for local businesses.

Advanced hCMOS has been granted a license to commercialize x-ray imaging systems based on Sandia's existing designs. This means that if you're one of the numerous companies or institutions working on fusion power, getting your hands on a speedy X-ray camera is about to get a little easier.

While wider availability of these X-ray cameras will no doubt aid in nuclear fusion research and development, the technology isn't limited to this use case. As hCMOS founder Liam Claus noted in a DoE blog post, the technology has implications for a variety of industries where ultra-high-speed imaging may be useful.

One notable example involves using the cameras to visualize the propagation of stress fractures in hardened glass — like the kind used in modern smartphones and tablets. According to Claus, the ability to see how these fractures form could open the door to more crack resistant glass. ®

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