FOUR engineers responsible for the creation of digital imaging sensors have today won the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize).
The £1m (US$1.26m) prize, which was created to celebrate world-changing innovations in engineering, has been won by engineers Eric Fossum and George Smith from the US, Nobukazu Teranishi of Japan, and Michael Tompsett from the UK, for their combined contribution across three decades.
Taken together, their work on imaging sensors has revolutionised how we capture and analyse visual information. The billions of resulting sensors now produced each year have transformed medical treatments, environmental monitoring, personal communication and entertainment.
“Images, and in particular digital images, have transformed our lives,” said Viola Vogel, deputy chair of the department of health sciences and technology at ETH Zurich. “They allow us to rapidly exchange information and more effectively communicate with each other across the world. At the molecular scale, images and image processing are absolutely fundamental to understanding how cells and bacteria work. At the other end of the scale, we all remember the fascination when spacecrafts were sending back the first images from the surfaces of Mars and a Comet, and those that captured the oldest light confirming the Big Bang theory.”
Their technology revolution began in the 1970s with the development of the charge coupled device (CCD) by Smith. The CCD is the image sensor found inside early digital cameras that converts individual particles of light, or photons, into an electrical signal. The charge is then converted into a binary digital form by an analogue-to-digital converter, and the image is stored as digital data.
The CCD was originally intended for use in computer memory but it was Tompsett who recognised the imaging potential. He invented the imaging semiconductor circuit, complete with analogue-to-digital converter. In 1980, Teranishi invented the modern pinned photodiode (PPD), which reduced the size of light-capturing ‘pixels’ and significantly improved the quality of images and underpins today’s sensors.
In 1992, Fossum invented the complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor that enables the production of cheap, high-resolution, portable cameras small enough to fit on your fingertip and found in countless devices worldwide.
Reacting to the win, Tompsett said: “Our work has been recognised because there are so many people using imaging devices in today’s world and they have had such a big social impact. Their quality exceeds anything we might have expected when we developed the first CCDs.”
Looking to the future, the winners’ technology will underpin the development of autonomous driving and thinking machines.
“We are now at a point where image sensors can be made to exceed the human eye. They can be faster, with greater dynamic range, and can pick up wavelengths of light from infra-red through to ultraviolet, which the eye just cannot do. Just as the Cambrian explosion saw the rapid evolution of animal life on Earth, I think we will see an explosion of ‘smart’ thinking machines, equipped with excellent vision to help human society,” said Hiroshi Komiyama, chairman of Mitsubishi Research Institute.
The Royal Academy of Engineering established the biennial prize in 2013 to celebrate those whose work has been of global benefit to humanity. The prize has been likened to the missing Nobel Prize for the engineering discipline.
The inaugural prize was awarded to the five engineers including Tim Berners-Lee whose work helped create the internet and worldwide web. The second was given to MIT chemical engineer Robert Langer for his work developing controlled release of drugs which has transformed the lives of billions of people.
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