Skip to main content
Superconducting Materials & Devices
Above: A 64-pixel array of superconducting nanowire single photon detectors (SNSPD) capable of counting over 1 billion photons per second with time resolution below 100 ps. The array is mounted in a chip carrier and can be efficiently coupled to a 5-meter telescope.

Superconducting Materials & Devices

Microdevices Laboratory (MDL) has been involved at the forefront of superconducting materials research for many decades. It continues still, with an immense range of applications to NASA science and technology.

The small energy gap and strong non-linearity of superconducting materials render them uniquely suited for ultra-sensitive detectors and electronics. MDL develops and deploys novel superconducting and related non-superconducting sensor technologies for application in areas such as astrophysics, optical communications, quantum computing, Earth, planetary, and cometary sciences.

Beginning in the early 1980s, cryogenic sensor research at JPL focused on superconductor-insulator-superconductor (SIS) heterodyne mixers for astrophysical applications. In collaboration with Caltech, MDL SIS millimeter- and submillimeter-wave mixer technology was deployed in terrestrial radio telescopes, balloon and airborne observatories, and the Herschel Space Observatory. Current development is aimed at cometary water observations. MDL was also an early leader in developing and deploying Hot Electron Bolometer (HEB) mixers, primarily for frequencies above 1 THz. MDL is also developing Josephson and HEB mixers based on the high-temperature superconductor MgB2 for frequencies above 1 THz and/or for operation at temperatures up to 20 K.

In parallel with these mixer developments, there has been long-term involvement with direct detectors, such as transition-edge sensors (TES). Increasingly complex focal plane arrays based on superconducting TES have been, and are being, deployed at the South Pole on several generations of radio telescopes to gather cosmic microwave background polarization measurements at millimeter wavelengths. A more recent innovation, and a potential replacement for TES devices are Thermal Kinetic Inductance Detectors (TKIDs). TKIDs are bolometers that use the thermally sensitive kinetic inductance of a superconducting film in a resonator to monitor temperature shifts from changes in loading. These detectors offer multiplexing that is extendible to large arrays.

JPL engineers are developing a flexible microwave readout system applicable to all types of kinetic inductance detectors and related sensors. It uses commercial off-the-shelf software-defined radios that generate radio frequency interrogation tones and digitized response from cryogenic cameras. The software radio streams this data by high-speed Ethernet to a desktop computer that demodulates and filters the data, accelerating demanding computations in the computer’s graphics card. This system is more flexible than a field-programmable gate array-based solution because it is programmed with conventional languages and is already facilitating the study of novel readout techniques.

Microwave kinetic inductance detectors (MKIDs) originated at Caltech and JPL and are attracting increasing interest due to the promise of larger and more sensitive detector arrays for key astrophysical and planetary science investigations. Prototype arrays have demonstrated photon noise-limited sensitivity for imaging a 300K background. In collaboration with Professor Ben Mazin’s group at UC Santa Barbara, near-infrared-optical MKIDs are also being deployed on Palomar Observatory’s 200-inch Hale telescope and 315-inch Subaru telescope in Hawaii to search for habitable exoplanets. Another ongoing development is kinetic inductance bolometers based on the high temperature superconductor, yttrium barium copper oxide. The goal of this work is to achieve low-noise operation at 50–55K to provide the basis for a passively cooled Fourier-transform infrared spectrometer for outer planet missions. Development also continues on the quantum capacitance detector which has achieved record sensitivity, making it a promising candidate for future far-infrared missions.

A microwave frequency version of the kinetic inductance traveling-wave parametric amplifier developed in MDL has demonstrated quantum-limited sensitivity over nearly an octave of bandwidth.-New designs are targeting the Ka-band for Deep Space Network applications and cosmic microwave background measurements, and the W band for application to millimeter-wave interferometers such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Nonlinear superconducting transmission lines can efficiently generate harmonics of an input waveform with an efficiency approaching unity for a narrow band of > 50 percent over a bandwidth of tens of percent. This effect has been harnessed to produce highly efficient multipliers for frequencies up to ~ 1 THz using niobium titanium nitride transmission lines. This range may be extended using other superconductors. Triplers for an initial demonstration at 300 GHz (output frequency) have been designed and are currently in fabrication.

Thermopile arrays for far IR - IR imagers are an example of a non-superconducting technology that grew out of early group activity on superconducting sensors and continues to this day. Recent applications include far-infrared spectrometers for the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI) and the planned Polar Radiant Energy in the Far Infrared Experiment (PREFIRE).

Superconducting nanowire single photon detectors (SNSPDs) provide the highest available sensor performance from ultraviolet to mid-infrared wavelengths. MDL has been a world leader in the development of this unique technology, currently holding world records for SNSPD detection efficiency, time resolution, active area, and dark counts. JPL SNSPDs are to be employed in the ground terminal of the Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC) project in 2022.

Mid-Infrared Detectors

Products & Processes

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: Superconductors for CMB

Superconductors for CMB

The Cosmic Microwave Background is our most ancient image of our universe – a thermal afterglow of the Big Bang with subtle variations in intensity and polarization. These patterns have allowed physicists to measure...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: Herschel & Planck

Herschel & Planck

The European Space Agency (ESA) Herschel and Planck missions were launched in 2009 and have provided numerous discoveries to the science community. MDL devices for these missions have made significant...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: MKIDs


Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors (MKIDs) were developed at Caltech and JPL in the early 2000s. Detectors like these enable further and more detailed studies of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB)...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: OLE MKIDs


Optical Lumped Element (OLE) Microwave Kinetic Induction Detector (MKID) arrays use superconductors to enable simultaneous single photon counting and energy resolution. Each pixel is composed of a tuned inductor...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: Parametric Amplifier

Parametric Amplifier

First demonstrated in 2012, a breakthrough in superconducting parametric amplifier (paramp) design at JPL offers the promise of near-quantum-limited noise temperature with more than ½ octave of bandwidth...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: QCD


Far-infrared spectroscopy can reveal secrets of galactic evolution and heavy-element enrichment throughout cosmic time and astronomers worldwide are designing cryogenic far-IR space telescopes. The most challenging...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: SIS Mixers

SIS Mixers

Submillimeter heterodyne spectroscopy has proven to be an incredibly powerful technique in determining local chemical, physical and dynamical processes remotely imaged by ground based and space based radio...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: High T YBCO


MDL is developing kinetic inductance bolometer (KIB) arrays based on the high temperature superconductor Yttrium Barium Copper Oxide (YBCO). These KIBs are intended for application to an IR Fourier transform...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: High T Mixers

High T Mixers

Magnesium diboride (MgB2) is a simple metallic compound discovered in 2001 to be superconducting. Ultrathin films (5-20 nm) of MgB2 with characteristics similar to those in the bulk have been achieved...

Image from MDL Core Competency Project: Quantum Computation

Quantum Computation

MDL continues to leverage its decades of experience with superconducting sensors by teaming with D-Wave Systems Inc. to advance adiabatic quantum computation. The successful collaboration between D-Wave...

Back to top