New Technology Paves Way for Highly Sensitive Photodetectors with Applications in High Energy Physics, Medicine, and National Security

Argonne National Lab wins prestigious 2012 R&D 100 award for development of Large Area Microchannel Plate Detectors

Image courtesy of ANL
Photograph of components for a large-area photodetector using glass spacers and enclosure and incorporating the large-area ALD microchannel plates.

The Science

Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Ill., Incom Inc., Charlton, Mass., and Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, Berkeley, California, are winners of a 2012 R&D 100 Award for new developments in microchannel plate (MCP) detectors. This prestigious award is offered each year by R&D Magazine. The Argonne technology improves advanced imaging and sensing technologies by offering a means to fabricate larger area, high-performance, and more robust microchannel plate-based detectors at a significantly lower cost.

The Impact

When combined with a photocathode plate and front end electronics, the result is a significantly cheaper, flat detector that can replace traditional photo multiplier tubes (PMTs). This makes them suitable for large-scale physics experiments and any application where highly sensitive, large area photodetectors are used, for example, for cargo scanning and medical imaging.


Many modern physics experiments require very large detectors to “see” either very rare processes or particles that, although abundant, are difficult to detect. Large detectors increase the probability of catching these particles and improving experimental results. But with size comes cost. A large detector often means a large volume filled with, for example, tons of water or liquid argon. Around this must be an array of hundreds and often thousands of individual photomultiplier tubes (PMT) pointed inward, each hoping to detect a glimmer of light. These PMTs are costly, bulky, and require lots of cabling to operate.  Argonne National Lab, however, has developed coatings for a new MCP substrate made of cheaper borosilicate glass with the appropriate capillary structure for secondary electron emission. These are supplied by InCom. These substrates are then coated via atomic layer deposition (ALD) with two thin coats, a resistive coating and an emissive coating, in order to optimize secondary electron emission. This is done at Berkeley Space Science Laboratory. The composition of these coatings can vary depending on the application.  This new technology provides an opportunity to significantly reduce the cost of large-scale experiments. But because large-area detectors are needed in other areas as well, they should find homes in national security and medical imaging as well.


Jeffrey Elam


Basic research: Office of Science High Energy Physics program

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Program: HEP

Performer: University , DOE Laboratory

Additional: Technology Impact