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Quantum Dots Promise Pro Photos from Cell Phones

The days of swapping grainy cell phone photos that look like they came off a 7-11 security camera may soon be over – if you believe the hype. Silicon Valley startup InVisage Technologies claims that its new “quantum dot” image sensors, which use a totally revamped technique, will snap photos four times better than existing mobile camera sensors, and fit in the same area.

How has the company managed to bypass the classic “bigger-sensor-equals-better -photos” ultimatum? According to InVisage, traditional silicon-based CMOS and CCD sensors only capture about 25 percent of the light they’re exposed to on average. Quantum dots, by its own figures, capture about 90 to 95 percent, which it translates to four times better performance and twice the dynamic range in a similar-size sensor.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to develop next-generation image sensors using silicon,” explains InVisage CEO Jess Lee. “Essentially, silicon has hit a wall.”

InVisage spent three years engineering its quantum dots, which it claims can leverage many of the same processes already in use for manufacturing CMOS sensors. Although the company hasn’t revealed all the ingredients to its secret sauce, the nanometer-sized particles are essentially suspended in liquid and spread across a silicon wafer in place of traditional materials.

InVisage claims the first sensors to use quantum dots will be available as engineering samples in the fourth quarter of 2010, which means it could be early 2011 before we see them integrated into smartphones and other devices.