Engineer and physicist, Eric Fossum, was born and raised in Connecticut, USA, where he spent his weekends feeding a budding interest in science at the Talcott Mountain Science Centre. Pursuing his dream, he graduated from Trinity College, Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in physics and engineering, and later gained a Master’s and PhD in engineering and applied science from Yale University.

Leaving Yale in 1984, Dr Fossum joined the ranks of Columbia University’s electrical engineering faculty, exploring high- speed charge coupled devices (CCDs) and their resulting images. His next job, in 1990, took him across the country to the golden state of California and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While working at the lab, NASA’s longest-serving administrator, Daniel Goldin, tasked Fossum with his own ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ mission; shrinking the CCD cameras destined for space travel.

Making a camera on a chip

Fossum’s response to the mission was the invention of the Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor and the so-called ‘camera-on-a-chip’. He later led the sensor’s development and technology transfer to US industry. Like its predecessor, the CCD, Fossum’s CMOS sensor used light sensitive areas called ‘pixels’ to produce an electrical current. This electrical current could then be converted into a binary code and stored as digital information. Unlike the CCD, which transfers charge to the corner of the pixel array to be converted, the CMOS sensor uses several transistors at each pixel to convert and amplify it. This meant that not only could the sensors be shrunk to the size of a chip, but they also consumed up to 100 times less power than CCDs. The miniaturisation of the camera proved essential for space travel, reducing the cost of launch and operations.

Fossum’s CMOS chips are much cheaper to produce than CCDs, paving the way for cheaper cameras with better battery life and allowing billions of people around the world access to digital photography.

After NASA

Now a professor of engineering at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, in New Hampshire, USA, Fossum has also headed up two high-tech companies; Photobit Corporation and Siimpel Corporation. Between 2008-2013, Fossum was a consultant for Samsung Electronics.

Outside of the office, Fossum is keen to encourage young people to take the first steps into engineering and spends his free time as a volunteer for the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s Collegiate Inventors Competition. During the summer break, he is a champion for Camp Invention, a week long summer camp for children to unleash their inner inventor.

Celebrating his achievements, Dr Eric Fossum has received several prestigious awards, including a NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, the Royal Photographic Society Progress Medal, the Yale University Wilbur Cross Medal and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Camera Origination and Imaging Medal.

On 01 February 2017, Fossum was recognised for his revolutionary contribution to the creation of digital imaging sensors by the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Fossum shares the world’s leading engineering prize with George Smith, Nobukazu Teranishi and Michael Tompsett.