A bolometer is a device for measuring the energy of incident electromagnetic radiation. It was invented in 1878 by the American astronomer Samuel Pierpont Langley.

It consists of an "absorber" connected to a heat sink (area of constant temperature) through an insulating link. The result is that any radiation absorbed by the absorber raises its temperature above that of the heat sink—the higher the energy absorbed, the higher the temperature will be. Temperature change can be measured directly or via an attached thermometer (composite design).

While bolometers can be used to measure radiation energy of any frequency, for most wavelength ranges there are other methods of detection that are more sensitive. However, for sub-millimetre wavelengths (from around 200 µm to 1 mm wavelength), the bolometer is the most sensitive detector for any measurement over more than a very narrow wavelength range.

Bolometers are therefore used for astronomy at these wavelengths. However, to achieve the best sensitivity, they must be cooled down to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero (typically from 50 millikelvins to 300 mK).

Bolometers are directly sensitive to the energy left inside the absorber. For this reason they can be used not only for ionizating particles and photons, but also for non-ionizing particles, for any sort of radiation and even to search for unknown forms of mass or energy (like dark matter); this lack of discrimination can also be a shortcoming. They are very slow to respond and slow to reset (i.e., return to thermal equilibrium with the environment). On the other hand, compared to more conventional particle detectors, they are extremely efficient in energy resolution and in sensitivity. They can be used to test very high radio-purity. They are also known as thermal detectors.

The term bolometer is also used in high-energy physics (particle physics) to designate an unconventional particle detector. They use the same principle described above. The bolometers are sensitive not only to light but to every form of energy.

The operating principle is similar to that of a calorimeter in thermodynamics. However, the approximations, ultra low temperature, and the different purpose of the device make the operational use rather different. In the jargon of high energy physics, these devices are not called calorimeters since this term is already used for a different type of detector (see Calorimeter (particle physics)).

Their use as particle detectors is still at the developmental stage. Their use as particle detectors was proposed from the beginning of the 20th century, but the first regular, though pioneering, use was only in the 1980s because of the difficulty associated with having a system at cryogenic temperature.

Langley's bolometer

The first bolometer used for infrared observations by Langley had a very basic design: It consisted of two platinum strips, covered with lampblack, one strip was shielded from the radiation and one exposed to it. The strips formed two branches of a wheatstone bridge which was fitted with a sensitive galvanometer and connected to a battery.

Electromagnetic radiation falling on the exposed strip would heat it, and change its resistance, the circuit thus effectively operating as a resistance temperature detector.

This instrument enabled him to feel his way thermally over the whole spectrum, noting all the chief Fraunhofer lines and bands, which were shown by sharp serrations, or more prolonged depressions of the curve which gave the emissions, and discovered the lines and bands of the invisible infra-red portion.


A microbolometer is a specific type of bolometer used as a detector in a thermal camera. It is a grid of vanadium oxide or amorphous silicon heat sensors atop a corresponding grid of silicon. Infrared radiation from a specific range of wavelengths strikes the vanadium oxide and changes its electrical resistance. This resistance change is measured and processed into temperatures which can be represented graphically. The microbolometer grid is commonly found in three sizes, a 640x480 array, a 320×240 array or less expensive 160×120 array. Both arrays provide the same resolution with the larger array providing a wider field of view. Larger, 1024x768 arrays were announced in 2008.

Cold-electron Bolometer

A cold-electron bolometer uses a SIN (superconducting, insulator, normal metal) junction. The incoming photon is received from a waveguide into the normal metal. It gives its energy to an electron that becomes excited. The significantly increased energy of that electron causes it to tunnel through the narrow insulator layer into the superconductor where it gives rise to a current, that in turn can be measured. The advantage with this is that the absorber is at the same time cooled due to the energy loss.

ee also


* cite book
last = Knoll
first = Glenn F.
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 2000
title = Radiation Detection and Measurement
publisher = Wiley
edition = 3rd edition
location = New York
id = ISBN 0-471-07338-5

*cite journal
author = McCammon, D.
coauthors = et al.
year = 1993
month = March
title = Thermal calorimeters for high resolution X-ray spectroscopy
journal = Nuclear Instruments & Methods in Physics Research, Section A (Accelerators, Spectrometers, Detectors and Associated)
volume = A326
issue = 1-2
pages = 157–165
id =
url =
accessdate =
doi = 10.1016/0168-9002(93)90346-J

*cite journal
author = Kuzmin, L.
coauthors = et al.
year = 2004
month = June
title = Ultimate Cold-Electron Bolometer with Strong Electrothermal Feedback
journal = Proc. of SPIE conference “Millimeters and Submillimeter Detectors”
volume = 5498
pages = 349
id =
url =
accessdate =

External links

* [ NASA on the history of the Bolometer]
* [ Langley's own words on the bolometer and its use]
* [ The world's largest bolometer camera for the study of extremely cold astronomical objects ]

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  • Bolometer — Bo*lom e*ter, n. [Gr. ? a stroke, ray + meter.] (Physics) An instrument for measuring minute quantities of radiant heat, especially in different parts of the spectrum; called also {actinic balance}, {thermic balance}. S. P. Langley. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Bolomēter — (griech., »Strahlungsmesser«), von Svanberg 1851 erfundenes und von Langley 1883 verbessertes Instrument, das weit empfindlicher ist als die Thermosäule, besteht aus einer Wheatstoneschen Brücke (s. Elektrotechnische Meßinstrumente), in deren… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Bolometer — (Strahlungsmesser). In die beiden Zweige einer Wheatstoneschen Brücke sind seine Streifen von Platin, Stahl oder Palladiumblech eingeschaltet; die geringste Erwärmung des einen Streifens hat einen Galvanometerausschlag zur Folge. Die… …   Lexikon der gesamten Technik

  • Bolometer — Bolomēter (grch., »Strahlungsmesser«), 1857 von Svanberg vorgeschlagenes, 1881 von Langley ausgeführtes Instrument zum Messen äußerst geringer Temperaturunterschiede (bis 0,1° C.), beruht auf dem Gesetz, daß der elektr. Leitungswiderstand von… …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • bolometer — ☆ bolometer [bō läm′ət ər ] n. [< Gr bolē, ray, lit., something thrown < ballein, to throw (see BALL2) + METER] Physics a very sensitive instrument for measuring and recording the intensity of small amounts of radiant energy bolometric… …   English World dictionary

  • bolometer — bolometric /boh leuh me trik/, adj. bolometrically, adv. /boh lom i teuhr, beuh /, n. Physics. a device for measuring minute amounts of radiant energy by determining the changes of resistance in an electric conductor caused by changes in its… …   Universalium

  • Bolometer — Ein Bolometer, auch bolometrischer Detektor (griechisch bole „Wurf“, „Strahl“), ist ein Strahlungssensor, der in Form von elektromagnetischer Strahlung die abgestrahlte Energie im gesamten Wellenlängenspektrum detektiert, meist über die… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Bolometer — Bo|lo|me|ter 〈n. 13〉 Gerät zum Messen von Strahlungsenergie [<grch. bole „Wurf, Strahl“ + metron „Maß“] * * * Bolometer   [zu griechisch bole̅ »Wurf«, »(Sonnen )Strahl«] das, s/ ,    1) Hochfrequenztechnik: Barretter.    2) Optik: Gerät zum… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Bolometer — bolometras statusas T sritis Standartizacija ir metrologija apibrėžtis Labai jautrus termometrinis įtaisas, naudojamas spinduliuotei aptikti ir jos energijai matuoti. Jo svarbiausias elementas – trumpa ir siaura visiškai juoda šilumą sugeriančia… …   Penkiakalbis aiškinamasis metrologijos terminų žodynas

  • bolometer — bolometras statusas T sritis Standartizacija ir metrologija apibrėžtis Labai jautrus termometrinis įtaisas, naudojamas spinduliuotei aptikti ir jos energijai matuoti. Jo svarbiausias elementas – trumpa ir siaura visiškai juoda šilumą sugeriančia… …   Penkiakalbis aiškinamasis metrologijos terminų žodynas

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