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Georgia State University

Innovation

Researchers Take Step Toward Developing ‘Electric Eye’

New horizons in medical diagnosis, environmental study, manufacturing, and archaeology

Published: Thursday, May 26, 2022 - 12:02

Georgia State University researchers have successfully designed a new type of artificial vision device that incorporates a novel vertical stacking architecture and allows for greater depth of color recognition and scalability on a microlevel. The research is published in the journal ACS Nano.

“This work is the first step toward our final destination—to develop a microscale camera for microrobots,” says assistant professor of physics Sidong Lei, who led the research. “We illustrate the fundamental principle and feasibility to construct this new type of image sensor with an emphasis on miniaturization.”

Lei’s team was able to lay the groundwork for the biomimetic artificial vision device, which uses synthetic methods to mimic biochemical processes, using nanotechnology.

“It’s well known that more than 80 percent of the information in research, industry, medication, and our daily life is captured by vision,” he says. “The ultimate purpose of our research is to develop a microscale camera for microrobots that can enter narrow spaces that are intangible by current means, and open up new horizons in medical diagnosis, environmental study, manufacturing, archaeology, and more.”

This biomimetic “electric eye” advances color recognition, the most critical vision function, which is missed in the current research due to the difficulty of downscaling the prevailing color-sensing devices. Conventional color sensors typically adopt a lateral color-sensing channel layout, consume a large amount of physical space, and offer less accurate color detection.

Researchers developed the unique stacking technique that offers a novel approach to the hardware design. Lei says the van der Waals semiconductor-empowered vertical color-sensing structure offers precise color-recognition capability that can simplify designing an optical lens system for downscaling artificial vision systems.

Ningxin Li, a graduate student in Lei’s Functional Materials Studio who was part of the research team, says recent advancements in technology make the new design possible.

“The new functionality achieved in our image sensor architecture all depends on the rapid progress of van der Waals semiconductors during recent years,” says Li. “Compared with conventional semiconductors, such as silicon, we can precisely control the van der Waals material band structure, thickness, and other critical parameters to sense the red, green, and blue colors.”

The van der Waals semiconductor-empowered vertical color sensors (vdW-Ss) represent an emerging class of materials, in which individual atomic layers are bonded by weak van der Waals forces. They constitute one of the most prominent platforms for discovering new physics and designing next-generation devices.

“The ultra-thinness, mechanical flexibility, and chemical stability of these new semiconductor materials allow us to stack them in arbitrary orders,” Li says. “So we’re actually introducing a three-dimensional integration strategy in contrast to the current planar micro-electronics layout. The higher integration density is the main reason why our device architecture can accelerate the downscaling of cameras.” 

The technology currently is patent-pending with Georgia State’s Office of Technology Transfer & Commercialization (OTTC). OTTC anticipates this new design will be of high interest to certain industry partners. “This technology has the potential to overcome some of the key drawbacks seen with current sensors,” says OTTC director Cliff Michaels. “As nanotechnology advances and devices become more compact, these smaller, highly sensitive color sensors will be incredibly useful.”

Researchers believe the discovery could even spawn advancements to help the vision-impaired one day.

“This technology is crucial for the development of biomimetic electronic eyes and also other neuromorphic prosthetic devices,” says Li. “High-quality color sensing and image-recognition function may bring new possibilities of colorful item perception for the visually impaired in the future.”

Lei says his team will continue pushing these advanced technologies forward using what they’ve learned from this discovery.

“This is a great step forward, but we are still facing scientific and technical challenges ahead, for example, wafer-scale integration,” he says. “Commercial image sensors can integrate millions of pixels to deliver high-definition images, but this hasn’t been implemented in our prototype yet. This large-scale van der Waals-semiconductor device integration is currently a critical challenge to be surmounted by the entire research society. Along with our nationwide collaborators, that is where our team is devoting our efforts.”

First published April 18, 2022, on Georgia State News Hub.

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Georgia State University

With six campuses throughout metro Atlanta, Georgia State University provides its world-class faculty and more than 52,000 students with unsurpassed connections to the opportunities available in one of the 21st century’s great global cities. A national leader in graduating students from diverse backgrounds, GSU provides a rich experience with award-winning housing, hundreds of student clubs and organizations, and one of the most diverse student bodies in the country.