All posts by Daniel Davies

DARPA wants to build a super photon detector

DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) has launched a new program that aims to improve photon detection technology to the point where individual photons can be identified.

The Fundamental Limits of Photon Detection program will call upon the expertise of quantum physicists, designers and engineers to create a fully quantum model of photon detection that combines the best features of current photon detection technology.

“The goal of the program is to determine how precisely we can spot individual photons and whether we can maximize key characteristics of photon detectors simultaneously in a single system,” said Prem Kumar, DARPA program manager.


DARPA explained that it is attempting to improve the effectiveness of current photon detection as the process of detecting light—whether with our eyes, cameras or other devices—is at the heart of a vast number of civilian and military applications.

The research agency also pointed out that the success of their current initiative could have wide-ranging implications for industries such as photography, astronomy, quantum information processing, medical imaging, microscopy and communications.

“This is a fundamental research effort, but answers to these questions could radically change light detection as we know it and vastly improve the many tools and avenues of discovery that today rely on light detection,” said Kumar.

Photons are the massless, ghostlike packets of energy that are the fundamental units of light.

The difficulty in detecting individual photons arises when light interacts with matter. Incoming light will interact with a trillion atoms simultaneously; the cloud of atoms then has to be modeled quantum mechanically to conclude with precision that a photon was actually there. Modeling at that massive scale hasn’t been possible—until recently.

“For decades we saw few significant advances in photon detection theory, but recent progress in the field of quantum information science has allowed us to model very large and complicated systems,” Kumar explained.

“Nano-fabrication techniques have come a long way. Now not only can we model, but we can fabricate devices to test those models.”


DARPA hopes that the fully quantum model under development will determine the potential success of a device that can take the best attributes from the semiconductor detectors, superconductor detectors and biological detectors that are currently being used.

“We want to know whether the basic physics of photon detection allows us, at least theoretically, to have all of the attributes we want simultaneously, or whether there are inherent tradeoffs,” Kumar said. “And if tradeoffs are necessary, what combination of these attributes can I maximize at the same time?”

Your first expedition into space could take off from Alton Towers

The UK’s Alton Towers Resort has announced it is to become home to the world’s first virtual reality rollercoaster.

Inspired by British astronaut Tim Peake’s voyage to the International Space Station in December 2015, the Galactica rollercoaster will turn riders into astronauts and plunge them into outer space with a G force more powerful than a real launch rocket.

“Tim Peake captured the imagination of millions of Brits last year when he set off on his mission to the International Space Station – and now our visitors can become astronauts too,” said marketing director at Alton Towers Resort, Gill Riley.

According to Alton Towers, Galactica’s riders will each wear a specialist VR headset that will guide them from the launch pad straight up into outer space.

Once the headset is on, visitors will ride in a prone position along a 840-metre long track that turns the twists and loops of a normal rollercoaster into an expedition through space, revealing new galaxies, stars and wormholes.

“There is nowhere else in the world that people can experience the feeling of a flying rollercoaster combined with soaring through the universe. For two minutes, our guests will be transported into space and we believe Galactica showcases the future for theme parks around the world – it’s a complete game changer,” said Riley.

Alton Towers decision to house the world’s first virtual reality rollercoaster is the latest example of VR technology pervading popular culture.

Image courtesy of Oculus

Image courtesy of Oculus. Featured image courtesy of Alton Towers

Details of Galatica have emerged only a week after Oculus revealed it would begin taking pre-orders for the consumer edition of the Rift, at a price of $599 plus tax and shipping.

The success of the Rift, along with other virtual reality devices from Sony and HTC, will go some way to validating a recent report from Deloitte, who claim that the VR industry will break the $1bn barrier for the first time in 2016.