New research shows promise for affordable infrared cameras

Infrared camera technology is one of the types of tech that has huge potential for beneficial uses, both in consumer-focused devices and in a number of scientific fields, yet continues to remain prohibitively expensive. That might change in the near future, thanks to a new discovery by a group of University of Chicago scientists that shows promise in reducing the costs of manufacturing.

Infrared cameras are able to capture the non-visible light that human eyes can't perceive; this type of energy is much smaller than visible light wavelengths, meaning the cameras must be more advanced, and expensive, than typical models. The key element is the need for multiple layers of semiconductors, a process that is both difficult and has a high rate of error, resulting in higher costs.

Two of the scientists involved in the new discovery, Xin Tang and Philippe Guyot-Sionnest, believe it could have a significant impact on manufacturing, as it reduces the cost of materials and amount of time needed. Their study, recently published in Nature Photonics, details how they used tiny nanoparticles called quantum dots which are able to capture infrared light wavelengths when adjusted to the right size.

"Collecting multiple wavelengths within the infrared gives you more spectral information—it's like adding color to black-and-white TV," said Tang. "Short-wave gives you textural and chemical composition information; mid-wave gives you temperature." Once they tuned a set of quantum dots to pick up short-wave infrared and another for mid-wave infrared, they layered each of them on a silicon wafer.

The scientists say the fabricated solution needed for a functional camera can be produced easily and within minutes, and the result is a device that performs just as well as existing models.

While this discovery has potential for advancements in consumer devices like smartphones, the researchers note other useful implementations for cheaper infrared cameras, such as in autonomous cars, where they can better detect pedestrians via heat signatures.