The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced a new program which seeks to enable quantum-level infrared (IR) detection at room temperature.
The IR spectrum is a vast information landscape that modern IR detectors tap into for diverse applications such as night vision, biochemical spectroscopy, microelectronics design, and climate science. But modern sensors used in these practical areas lack spectral selectivity and must filter out noise, limiting their performance. Advanced IR sensors can achieve ultrasensitive, single-photon level detection, but these sensors must be cryogenically cooled to 4 K ( -269 C) and require large, bulky power sources making them too expensive and impractical for everyday Department of Defense or commercial use.
DARPA’s Optomechanical Thermal Imaging (OpTIm) program aims to develop novel, compact, and room-temperature IR sensors with quantum-level performance – bridging the performance gap between limited capability uncooled thermal detectors and high-performance cryogenically cooled photodetectors.
“If researchers can meet the program’s metrics, we will enable IR detection with orders-of-magnitude improvements in sensitivity, spectral control, and response time over current room-temperature IR devices,” said Mukund Vengalattore, OpTIm program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “Achieving quantum-level sensitivity in room-temperature, compact IR sensors would transform battlefield surveillance, night vision, and terrestrial and space imaging. It would also enable a host of commercial applications including infrared spectroscopy for non-invasive cancer diagnosis, highly accurate and immediate pathogen detection from a person’s breath or in the air, and pre-disease detection of threats to agriculture and foliage health.”
The key to potentially realizing this giant technological leap in IR sensing comes from the synergy of combining the best aspects of three sensor paradigms: First, optomechanical resonators – tiny trampoline-like structures – offer a high isolation, ultrasensitive platform; second, all-optical detectors yield low-noise, quantum-level detection; and third, designer metamaterials with spectrally selective “made-to-order” IR absorption allow for extremely precise detection of desired wavelengths.
“Trying to enhance IR sensing capabilities using any one of those methods by itself would be hard, but not too hard,” Vengalattore said. “What makes OpTIm such an incredibly difficult challenge, with revolutionary impact if we’re successful, is combining all three. We are not looking to merely augment existing IR detection modalities with evolutionary improvements in signal readout, noise mitigation, or spectral selectivity. What makes this program exciting from a scientific perspective and an application-oriented perspective is that OpTIm seeks to bring together innovative solutions at the confluence of optomechanics, materials physics, photonics, and metrology to take a fresh look at an old problem. At the end of the day, for all the applications that spring to mind with the projected capabilities of OpTIm-based detectors, there are probably many more applications that we haven’t yet imagined that will be engendered by this new regime of IR detection.”
OpTIm is a 60-month program broken into two 30-month phases where teams will aim to validate, characterize, and benchmark this new class of optomechanical IR detectors.
A Proposers Day webcast is scheduled for September 9, 2022.