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Superhuman tech will make us able to see infrared light, like Superman wishes he could

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Nov 10, 2020, 3:13 PM EST

Superman has X-ray vision, and while we haven’t gotten there yet, a device that gives you an otherworldly view into what things look like in infrared now exists.

No word if Kryptonians can see in infrared, but infrared wavelengths are too long for the human eye to process (as opposed to X-rays being too short). We are unable to see any type of light whose wavelengths are either too long or too short to land in the realm of visible light, which is actually a really small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. While there are already other devices used to translate the infrared part of the spectrum, scientists from Tel Aviv University have now come up with a gizmo that attaches to ordinary cameras — and could potentially change your point of view forever.

Think of it like attaching a macro lens to your camera, except that this add-on lets you see in the entire mid infrared-region. It will make gases like hydrogen, carbon, and sodium suddenly visible, and let you see things as you’ve never seen them before. Alien colors will almost look as if they’ve been Photoshopped into real life.

Humans really can’t see much of everything that exists. Visible light lands between the wavelengths of blue and red, which are 400 to 700 nanometers. There are so many things on Earth and in space we would have no idea was even out there if we only relied on our own eyeballs. If you could actually see UV radiation, on the shorter or blue side, you would probably rethink how much SPF you put on before going outside. Infrared, which is on the longer or red side, can do everything from exposing cancer cells to finding objects hiding in space that are otherwise too cool and faint to show up. This is why we need forms of imaging that convert infrared light to visible light.

Upconversion imaging, where mid‐infrared (IR) photons are converted to visible and near‐IR photons via a nonlinear crystal and detected on cheap and high‐performance silicon detectors, is an appealing method to address the limitations of thermal sensors,” said Haim Suchowski, who co-authored a study recently published in Laser & Photonics Reviews.

Most tech capable of converting infrared to visible light is much more expensive than your average macro lens. Not to mention that most thermal sensors need to be cooled, don’t perceive space too well, and are low on sensitivity. They also don’t have much spectral bandwidth, and must image something many times for a decent result if they are to cover a large spectrum.

The mid-infrared upconversion imaging that Suchowski’s team used to develop their converter heightens sensitivity while increasing speed and minimizing noise. Nonlinear frequency conversion is a process that converts light entering the device into light of another frequency, and it does this by adding energy to photons to change their wavelength. Making infrared photons visible means using that energy to shorten them. While previous tech could only work with really advanced and expensive cameras, this new device can see through the entire mid-infrared spectrum and works with a standard camera.

How would you see things in infrared? Everything has a chemical signature that appears as a color. You would be able to see pollutants that are otherwise invisible, dangerous chemicals leaking from power plants, hidden explosives, even stars and nebulas glowing in the void of space. You’d also have the superpower of night vision with one of these on your camera. Heat emissions from objects are visible in the infrared, so you would suddenly be able to see things you’d otherwise end up running into in total darkness.

Imagine what Superman would do with that extra power.


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