Whenever you take a picture in the dark there are options: a flash, a longer exposure or digitally enhancing the final image. But sometimes a flash ruins the dramatic lighting, a long exposure is too slow for fast action and editing in Photoshop is too complicated.

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Help is on the way: a team of scientists led by Andras Kis at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland have found a material that could make cameras five times more sensitive to light, reducing or even eliminating the need for a flash or a long exposure. The material — made from a mix of molybdenum and sulfur — was used to make a single-pixel prototype sensor that only needed 1/25th of a second to expose a nighttime streetscape that other cameras would require 1/5th of a second. The sensitivity of the new sensor is fast enough that moving people didn’t get blurred.

It works because molybdenite is much more sensitive to light than silicon, the other material other digital sensors in cameras are made from.

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Besides sensitivity, there’s another plus to molybdenite: it’s cheap. Unlike other exotic technologies or semiconducting materials, there’s lots of it around and factories making image sensors out of it won’t need re-tooling.

The work appears in the latest issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Credit: EPFL / Alain Herzog