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Image Intensification: The Technology

of Night Vision
Photonics HandbookThrough succeeding generations, image intensifying devices have
brought vision to the dark of night.


Image intensification, the basis of night vision, is a complex conversion of energy particles
that occurs within a vacuum tube. An image-intensifier system works by collecting photons
through an objective lens, converting them to electrons via a photocathode, increasing the
electrical energy with a microchannel plate (MCP), converting the electrical energy back to
light using a phosphor screen and presenting the image for viewing through an eyepiece lens.

A sophisticated miniaturized power supply is used to provide the voltages between the
elements of the vacuum tube that allow for the energy conversion and amplification. All of
the elements within the vacuum tube are closely spaced to avoid electron scatter.

The main electron amplification occurs within the MCP, a thin disc that contains millions of
closely spaced channels. As the electrons pass through the channels and strike the channel
walls, thousands of additional electrons are released. When these strike the phosphor screen,
the increased energy is reconverted into light thousands of times brighter than that which
entered. The phosphor screen emits this light in the same pattern as the light collected by the
objective lens, so the brightened, intensified image seen in the eyepiece corresponds to the
scene being viewed (or not viewed) in the dark.

The generation gap

In the night-vision world, the word generation (Gen) refers to major advancements in
technology. The higher the generation, the more sophisticated the night-vision technology.
The generation gap is the change in technology that drives the change in nomenclature.

During World War II and the Korean War, the art of stealth warfare had taken hold, and
formal sniper training had become a part of military maneuvers. It was during these years that
the image-intensification progression began.

Early snipers used image converters (sniperscopes) that required an infrared light source to
illuminate their target. Known as Gen 0, these image converters evolved from RCA’s image
converter tube developed in the mid-1930s for use in televisions. The Gen 0 image converter
used an S-1 photocathode, an IR-sensor with a high-voltage electron acceleration electrostatic
field and a phosphor screen. The S-1 cathode (AgOCs) did not have as much quantum
efficiency as the cathodes used today, but it was able to provide images with the help of the
IR illuminator (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Gen 0 tube design and makeup.

The process by which the image was intensified was quite simple in this generation. The
reflected IR illuminator light entered the tube and the photocathode converted the light to
electrons. Electronic elements focused these electrons through a coneshaped component
(anode) and accelerated them using very high voltage so they hit the phosphor screen with
greater energy, recreating a visible image. Accelerating the electrons in this manner did not
produce much gain and caused distortion in the image. Also, tube life was not very good by
today’s standards.

Generation 1

The starlight scope, developed during the early 1960s and used during the Vietnam War, was
made using Gen 1 image-intensifier tubes. In this scope, three image-intensifier tubes were
connected in series, making the unit larger and heavier than today’s night-vision goggles.
This early generation produced a clear center image with a distorted periphery. The use of
multiple tubes connected in series allowed for much greater overall light gain as the output of
the first tube was amplified by the second and the second by the third. Due to the simple
power supply design, the image was subject to instances of blooming — momentary image
washout due to an overload in the intensifier tube caused by bright light sources (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Gen 1 tube design and makeup.

The primary difference between Gen 1 and Gen 0 was the more sophisticated chemical
process employed to create the photocathode. The S-20 cathode, a multi-alkali antimonide
process, enhanced the sensitivity as well as the spectral response. However, Gen 1 did have
some of the same drawbacks of image distortion and decreased tube life as seen with Gen 0.
Tubes built with Gen 0 and Gen 1 technologies are commonly found in many of today’s
imported night-vision viewers.

Generation 2

Developed in the late 1960s, Gen 2 technology brought a major breakthrough in night vision
with the development of the microchannel plate. Additionally, the photocathode process used
for Gen 1 was further refined to the S-25 cathode and produced much higher photo response.

Nevertheless, it was the introduction of the MCP that made Gen 2 unique. The MCP begins
with two dissimilar pieces of glass. A large tube of solid glass (core) is placed within a
tubular sleeve of glass (clad). The two glasses are then heated together and stretched to form
a very small diameter glass fiber. The fibers are ultimately compressed together to form a
bundle of glass fibers called a boule. The boule is then sliced at an angle to obtain thin discs.
Further chemical processing removes only the core glass, thus creating the channels within
the MCP. During the tube operation, the electrons travel into the channels and, as they strike
the channel walls, they produce secondary electron emissions which create several hundred
electrons (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Gen 2 tube design and makeup.

The close spacing of the channels within the MCP, along with the close spacing of the MCP
to both the photocathode and the phosphor screen, allow an image to be created without the
distortion characteristic of the Gen 0 and Gen 1 tubes. However, the channels within early
MCPs were quite large compared with today’s MCPs. As such, the resolution within early
Gen 2 tubes was not as good as that of Gen 0, Gen 1 or today’s Gen 2 and Gen 3 tubes.

The other advancement with Gen 2 was the reduction in overall size and weight of both the
tube module and the power supply. This reduction allowed Gen 2 tubes to be the first image
intensifiers used within user-mounted devices such as head- and helmet-mounted goggles.

Generation 3

Developed in the mid-1970s and placed into production during the 1980s, Gen 3 was mainly
an advance in photocathode technology. The overall appearance between Gen 2 and Gen 3
tubes is quite similar. Gen 3 tubes use gallium arsenide (GaAs) for the photocathode. This
increases the tube’s sensitivity dramatically and particularly in the near-IR. The increased
sensitivity improved system performance under low-light conditions, or, to put it another
way, enabled the tube to detect light at far greater distances.

However, the highly reactive GaAs photocathode could be easily degraded by the inherent
chemical interactions that take place within a tube under normal operation. Most of the
chemical reactions take place within the MCP due to the electron interactions with the walls
of the MCP channels. Thus, to overcome the degrading effects of the photocathode, a thin
metal-oxide coating was added to the input side of the MCP. This coating, more commonly
known as an ion barrier film, not only prevented premature degradation of the photocathode
but also enhanced the tube life by many times that of the Gen 2 tubes.

This improvement continues to be a significant performance difference between Gen 2 and

Gen 3 tubes. The film can, however, impede the photoelectrons from entering the MCP, so
intrinsically it increases the electronic noise component of the tube. A major measure of
overall performance for an image-intensifier tube is known as the signal-to-noise ratio, or
SNR. The signal component comes directly from the photocathode sensitivity. The noise
component comes from the combined effect of various operational aspects of the tube, both
physical and electrical. The substantially higher photoresponse of the Gen 3 photocathode
more than offsets the increased noise component (due to the ion barrier film), providing Gen
3 with a significant improvement over Gen 2.

Both Gen 2 and Gen 3 tube manufacturers have made continuous improvements through the
years to increase the signal-to-noise ratio within each respective technology. Additionally,
continuous improvements have been made within MCP manufacturing so as to improve the
overall resolution also (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Gen 3 tube design and makeup.

There has been considerable effort expended in developing a Gen 3 tube without the ion
barrier film. The effort proved successful, but the manufacturing costs were excessive
compared to the performance improvements. For a brief period of time, the Gen 3 tube
without the ion barrier film was termed Gen 4. This terminology, however, was rescinded
shortly after it was announced, though some resellers of night-vision tubes still use the

Continuous developments

Gen 2 and Gen 3 technology have transitioned through a long time of continuous
development with tremendous improvements within each of these technologies.

One area that has contributed to the improvements is the advancement of the miniature high-
voltage power supply. Early developments with the power supply included protection circuits
to automatically control the output brightness of the tube under changing input light
conditions. These effects, known as automatic brightness control (ABC) and bright source
protection (BSP), were directed at protecting both the image tube from highlight exposure
and the user’s eyes from excessive brightness. The ABC automatically reduces voltage to the
microchannel plate to keep the image intensifier output brightness within optimal limits and
to protect the tube. This effect can be seen during rapid changes from low-light to high-light
conditions when the image gets brighter and then quickly returns to a consistent level. The
BSP reduces voltage to the photocathode rather than the microchannel plate. The BSP
protects the image tube from damage and enhances its lifetime.

Under high-light conditions, the scene resolution can be degraded. Advancements in

miniaturized power supplies include the addition of autogating circuits. These circuits control
the way the photocathode is operated under changing input light conditions. Autogating
allows the image tube to be used under higher input lighting with much less degradation of
the image quality.

Autogating turns off the photocathode voltage for brief periods of time, but the effect is not
visible to the human eye. The cathode voltage is constantly oscillating, but the image appears
as if it were continuous. The autogating circuit reduces the time the voltage is on during each
oscillation but keeps the peak voltage level up. By controlling the application of voltage in
this manner, the resolution quality remains high. In effect, the autogating feature tricks the
device into thinking it is always in a low-light environment, which is the optimal
environment for maximum efficiency and clarity for the image-intensifier tube. While the
most obvious effect of autogating for the user may be improved resolution in high-light
conditions, its original purpose was to help extend the lifetime of the tube, a benefit which is
most realized with thin-film or filmless tubes.

As opposed to the gradual lifetime decay seen in tubes without an ion barrier film, the Gen 3
tube with gating and the use of a thin film improves tube life and performance far more than
any other image-intensifier technology. Typical reliability is well in excess of 15,000 hours
without noticeable degradation. This change in durability is a significant accomplishment
when considering the much shorter lifetimes of Gen 0, Gen 1 and Gen 2 tubes.

What’s next

Image-intensifier technology has most widely been associated with use in night-vision
goggles (NVGs). Another major technology, unrelated to image intensification, yet referred
to as night vision, is that of thermal or IR imaging. Image intensification and thermal imaging
each have comparative strengths and weaknesses. Thermal imagers are quite good at
detecting heat sources in total darkness, such as body heat of personnel or engine heat;
however, they do not have as high a resolution as do image intensifiers (at equivalent fields
of view). Such is because thermal imagers provide an electronic output and the pixel size of
the focal plane array (FPA) is much greater than the “effective” pixel size of the direct view
optical output of the image intensifier tube. Additionally, thermal imagers had for many years
been impractical for user-mounted applications, like NVGs, because of their greater size,
weight and power (SWaP) consumption. Advances in recent years with uncooled thermal
imagers such as vanadium oxide and amorphous silicon, have greatly improved these features
making them more suitable for head-mounted applications.

It is easy to imagine myriad situations in which users would greatly benefit from the
attributes of both thermal and image-intensification devices at the same time. Thus the logical
progression would be to build one device that brings the benefits of both technologies

Sensor fusion

Sensor fusion combines the respective strengths of thermal and image-intensification

technologies into one device. By combining the strengths of both technologies, users can
view a much greater portion of the light spectrum – visible to near-IR to long-wave infrared.
The ability to see information from both the visible and thermal spectrums through one
device represents a significant advantage to military, security and law enforcement personnel
(Figure 5).

Figure 5. Woodline seen through Gen 3 night-vision device (top) and seen with IR
technology (bottom).

The desire to fuse these two technologies – and keep the overall SWaP consumption low so
the device can be worn by a person – is leading to the development of new night-vision
technologies and devices. The primary device is the enhanced night-vision goggle (ENVG)
that combines a thermal imager with an image intensifier. In the ENVG, the image intensifier
works like a standard NVG. However, the image from the thermal sensor is presented on a
video display and then optically overlaid with the image-intensifier output. The future desire
is to combine the video output of a thermal imager directly with the video output of an
electronic output image intensifier. These new devices could then present a complete digitally
fused image to a HMD in a device known as the digitally enhanced night-vision goggle

Leading the technology development in image intensifiers with direct video outputs are the
MCPCMOS (microchannel plate complementary metal oxide semiconductor) and the EBAPS
(electron bombarded active pixel sensor). Both devices combine a modified CMOS imager
directly into the vacuum envelope of a proximity focused image tube. The CMOS imager
replaces the phosphor screen and provides a direct video output which can be presented to a
head or helmet-mounted display. The primary difference is that the EBAPS does not contain
a microchannel plate thus limiting its luminous gain capability. Additionally by having an
electronic output, the image can be digitally enhanced as well as digitally combined with the
electronic output of a thermal imager.

Having the images in a completely electronic format will allow users to transmit images to a
command center for information verification or general intelligence gathering and
observation. Considerable research and development funding has come from governmental
sources to improve the performance of image intensifiers. The primary use for image
intensifiers and related technologies as discussed within this article has been for the military,
though as is often found with modern technology, products developed for one purpose have
proved useful for another.

As the technology has advanced, the areas for use have widened. Medical, scientific,
industrial and commercial imaging applications are all taking advantage of this technology.
The medical imaging profession is increasingly relying on the use of image intensifiers as a
key component in diagnostic systems. Image intensifiers are used in conjunction with
endoscopes, x-ray imaging and fluoroscopy equipment to assist with numerous procedures.
Additionally, image intensifiers are being used with scientific research tools for cell and
tissue evaluations associated with cancer study. Image intensifiers also are gaining popularity
in numerous commercial applications such as machine vision and spectroscopic equipment.

Whether in the hands of military personnel on the battlefield or law enforcement within our
communities, image intensifiers have allowed our nation’s defenders to own the night and
have provided doctors, scientists and engineers with the capability to perform in otherwise
inoperable conditions.