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The process of detecting light—whether with our eyes, cameras or other devices—is at the heart of a wide range of civilian and military applications, including light or laser detection and ranging (LIDAR or LADAR), photography, astronomy, quantum information processing, medical imaging, microscopy and communications. But even the most advanced detectors of photons—the massless, ghostlike packets of energy that are the fundamental units of light—are imperfect, limiting their effectiveness. Scientists suspect that the performance of light-based applications could improve by orders of magnitude if they could get beyond conventional photon detector designs—perhaps even to the point of being able to identify each and every photon relevant to a given application.
X-rays and gamma rays have a wide range of applications including scanning suspicious maritime shipping containers for illicit materials, industrial inspection of materials and processes, and medical diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. Current technologies, however, are not ideal. X-rays produce a continuum of energies that limit their inspection and diagnostic performance, and gamma rays can only be produced at specific energies unique to a given radioactive isotope.