Photonics Dictionary

single-photon avalanche diode

A single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD) is a specialized type of photodetector designed to detect extremely weak optical signals, down to the level of single photons. SPADs are widely used in applications such as quantum optics, lidar (light detection and ranging), fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM), and other low-light-level applications where the detection of individual photons is essential.

Key features and principles of SPADs include:

Single-photon sensitivity: The primary feature of SPADs is their ability to detect individual photons. When a single photon strikes the SPAD, it can trigger an avalanche breakdown in the semiconductor material, resulting in a measurable electrical signal.

Avalanche breakdown: SPADs operate in a mode called "avalanche breakdown." When a photon is absorbed by the semiconductor material (often silicon), it creates an electron-hole pair. Under appropriate bias conditions, a single electron can trigger a cascade of impact ionization events, leading to an avalanche of charge carriers, which is then detected as an electrical signal.

High quantum efficiency: SPADs are designed to have high quantum efficiency, meaning they efficiently convert incident photons into electrical signals. This is crucial for applications where detecting weak optical signals is challenging.

Fast response time: SPADs typically have fast response times, enabling them to detect and timestamp individual photons with high temporal resolution. This property is valuable in applications like time-correlated single photon counting (TCSPC) and FLIM.

Photon counting: SPADs are often used in photon counting applications, where the number of detected photons is crucial information. This is common in fields such as quantum communication, quantum key distribution, and various types of imaging techniques.

Applications of SPADs include:

Quantum optics: SPADs are essential in experiments involving single-photon sources, quantum entanglement, and other quantum optics applications.

Lidar: SPADs can be used in lidar systems for distance measurement based on the time-of-flight of laser pulses.

Medical imaging: In FLIM, SPADs are employed to measure the fluorescence decay times of fluorophores, providing information about molecular processes in biological samples.

Communication: SPADs are used in quantum communication systems for secure key distribution.

Geiger Mode Operation: SPADs are often operated in Geiger mode, where they are biased above the breakdown voltage. In this mode, a single photon can trigger an avalanche, leading to a detectable signal.

While SPADs offer high sensitivity and fast response times, they also have challenges, including afterpulsing (delayed signals caused by trapped charge carriers) and dark counts (spontaneous avalanche events in the absence of incident photons). Advances in SPAD technology, along with sophisticated mitigation techniques, continue to improve their performance in various applications.

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