At a mind-boggling 4.4 trillion frames per second (FPS), the new STAMP (Sequentially Timed All-optical Mapping Photography) system developed by two Japanese universities is claimed to be the world’s fastest camera. Taking pictures at a resolution of 450 x 450 pixels, the new image-capturing device is purported to be so fast that it can be used to photograph the conduction of heat, which travels at a speed equivalent to one-sixth the velocity of light.

Developed by researchers at the University of Tokyo and Keio University, the camera is said to use a method called femto-photography to capture images in a single burst without the need for repetitive measurements as used in other types of ultra-high-speed cameras. The team reports that this is achieved by using an ultra-short laser pulse split into a series of discrete separate pulses, each in different spectral bands, which illuminate the target object as successive flashes so that the entire scene may be captured using stroboscopic acquisition.

In other words, the object being photographed is sequentially illuminated by many beams derived from a femtosecond laser. Through a system of mirrors, the camera is oriented towards different parts of the object and captures a view of each and, in turn, each of the flashes from the laser is captured as a small part of the image and – combined – these parts form a composite whole.

As part of a demonstration of this phenomenally fast image capture, the teams claimed to have used the camera to capture lattice vibrational waves (the periodic oscillation of atoms in a crystal) and plasma dynamics (the study of ionized matter flow), two previously difficult phenomena to observe with standard high-speed photography – especially capturing them with a single shot in real time.

At the quoted acquisition speed, this photographic system flashes past the previous best of one trillion FPS achieved by MIT back in 2011. It makes the European XFEL X-ray camera look sluggish at a mere 4.5 million FPS. And is more than 10,000 times faster than any commercially available system – such as the Phantom V1610 – could hope to achieve.

A counter to its phenomenal speed, however, is the fact that it is a little on the large side right now. At more than one meter (3 ft) square, there is some serious miniaturization work to be done to get the camera down to a more easily portable size.

With a host of potential applications for the system in physics, chemistry, and a myriad other disciplines, one can imagine that the team of Japanese researchers will quickly want to realize a smaller version of this camera in the not-too-distant future.

The research has been published in the journal Nature Photonics.