In the not-so-distant future, infrared technology may infiltrate the mainstream, allowing soldiers to locate enemy forces with infrared-equipped smartphones and everyday automobile drivers to navigate evening commutes with the assistance of thermal video screens.
Chris Littler, professor of physics, and his colleague A.J. Syllaios, a senior engineering fellow at L-3 Communications and a research professor at UNT, have received two grants totaling more than $1 million to investigate how changes in temperature and other properties affect the electrical conductivity of thin wafers of amorphous silicon.
Amorphous silicon, the non-crystalline allotropic form of silicon, has been used in thermal cameras for the last five to 10 years. The very thin films of silicon are cheaper to produce than prior materials and also can detect rapid changes in temperature better. Thermal imaging has military, law enforcement, industrial and even medical applications.
Littler and Syllaios are using nearly $300,000 from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Army Research Office and $710,000 from L-3 Communications to see how small changes to the chemistry of the amorphous silicon could improve the conductivity of the material. L-3 Communications is providing different samples of amorphous silicon, which have slight chemical differences. The properties of each sample will then be measured using a variety of tests.
"Optimizing this material could lead to infrared cameras with better resolution, increased sensitivity to temperature differences and reduced manufacturing costs," Syllaios says. "This research might even produce findings that lead to a new infrared technology that revolutionizes the market."
Littler says infrared technology has come a long way in the last two decades.
"The first generation of infrared imaging technology used materials that required extensive cooling, which made it difficult and expensive to produce. Now we have progressed to a point where, for most applications, the materials no longer need to be cooled, making the cameras less expensive to manufacture and operate," Littler says.
In the early 1990s, Littler predicted that thermal imaging cameras would be an option for all cars within his lifetime, and he says he is beginning to see that prediction realized.
"Infrared technology greatly improves visibility at night, and some luxury vehicles already have the option of combining a thermal image with a visible one, called image fusion," Littler says. "I suspect this technology will continue to infiltrate the automotive and electronics market as it becomes cheaper to produce."
Alyssa Yancey with UNT News Service can be reached at Alyssa.Yancey@UNT.edu.