Imagine seeing in the dark like a superhero with heat vision.
That could soon be a very real possibility.
They say the discovery has the potential to put heat vision technology into a contact lens.
The University of Michigan says unlike infrared detectors currently on the market, this new detector doesn't need bulky cooling equipment to work.
"We can make the entire design super-thin," said Zhaohui Zhong, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. "It can be stacked on a contact lens or integrated with a cell phone."
The detector is made from graphene, a thin sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice.
Considered the strongest material in the world, graphene can sense the entire infrared spectrum, as well as visible and ultraviolet light.
Until now, graphene hasn't been viable for infrared detection because it can't capture enough light to generate a detectable electrical signal.
With one-atom thickness, it only absorbs about 2.3 percent of the light that hits it. If the light can't produce an electrical signal, graphene can't be used as a sensor.
"The challenge for the current generation of graphene-based detectors is that their sensitivity is typically very poor," scientist Zhong said. "It's a hundred to a thousand times lower than what a commercial device would require."
So Zhong and fellow researcher Ted Norris, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, worked with a team of graduate students to design a whole new way of generating and measuring electrical signals.
Rather than trying to directly measure the electrons that are freed when light hits the graphene, they amplified the signal by looking instead at how the light-induced electrical charges in the graphene affect a nearby current, as described in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
"Our work pioneered a new way to detect light," Zhong said. "We envision that people will be able to adopt this same mechanism in other material and device platforms."
The device is already smaller than a pinky nail and scientists say it can be easily scaled down even further.
Zhong and his colleagues have yet to produce the contact lenses, but they believe the discovery has many practical applications. One area for potential use is the U.S. military, Zhong says.
"If we integrate it with a contact lens or other wearable electronics, it expands your vision," Zhong said. "It provides you another way of interacting with your environment."