Operating Principle of Single Photon Counters
Avalanche photodiodes operated in the Geiger Mode have the ability to detect single photons. This single photon sensitivity can be achieved by biasing the APD above the breakdown voltage (Point A in Fig. 1). The APD will remain in a metastable state until a photon arrives and generates an avalanche (Point B). This avalanche is quenched by an active quenching circuit inside the APD (Point C), which lowers the bias voltage below the breakdown voltage (labeled VBR in Fig. 1).
Current Voltage CharacteristicsFigure 1:
Current Voltage Characteristics of an Avalanche Photodiode Operated in Geiger Mode
Afterwards the excess bias voltage can be restored. During this time, which is known as the pulse dead time of the diode, the APD is insensitive to any other incoming photons. Spontaneously triggered avalanches are possible while the diode is in a metastable state. If these spontaneous avalanches occur randomly, they are called dark counts. If the spontaneously triggered avalanches are correlated in time with a pulse caused by a photon, it is called an afterpulse. To block such afterpulses in the measurement, an additional pulse dead time can be set in the software, which will cause the internal counter of the SPCM to ignore all pulses occurring during this pulse dead time.
In this mode, the diode is operated slightly above the breakdown threshold voltage. Hence, a single electron-hole pair (generated by absorption of a photon or by a thermal fluctuation) can trigger a strong avalanche.
Dark Count Rate:
This is the average rate of registered counts in the absence of any incident light and determines the minimum count rate at which the signal is dominantly caused by real photons. The false detection events are mostly of thermal origin and can therefore be strongly suppressed by using a cooled detector.
Active Quenching occurs when a fast discriminator senses the steep onset of the avalanche current and quickly reduces the bias voltage so that it is below breakdown momentarily. The bias is then returned to a value above the breakdown voltage in preparation for detection of the next photon.
Dead Time is the time interval the detector spends in its recovery state. During this time, it is effectively blind to incoming photons. The dead time fraction, which is an inherent feature of an active quenching circuit, may be defined as the ratio of missed to incident events.
During an avalanche, some charges can be trapped inside the high field region. When these charges are released, they can trigger an avalanche. These spurious events are called Afterpulses. The life of those trapped charges is on the order of a few tenths of a microsecond. Hence, it is likely that an afterpulse occurs directly after a signal pulse.