What is Microchannel Plate (MCP)?

A microchannel plate (MCP) is a device that can detect and amplify single particles (such as electrons or ions) or photons (such as ultraviolet or X-rays) by using many tiny tubes that multiply electrons through secondary emission. It is often used in intensified cameras to make faint images brighter and clearer.

Common Specification and Products

How the microchannel plate works

A MCP is made of a thin plate of glass that has many small holes (called microchannels) running from one side to the other. The microchannels are usually arranged in a hexagonal pattern and have diameters of 5 to 20 micrometers. The microchannels are tilted slightly from the normal direction of the plate, so that any particle or photon that enters one of them will hit the wall of the channel.

The wall of each microchannel is coated with a thin layer of a semiconductor material that can release more electrons when hit by an incoming particle or photon. This creates a cascade of electrons that travels along the channel and reaches the other side of the plate with a much higher number than the original signal. The ratio of the output to input electrons is called the gain, and it depends on the voltage applied across the plate and the geometry of the microchannels.

The output electrons can be collected by an anode, which can be a simple metal plate or a more complex device that can produce an image based on the spatial distribution of the electrons. For example, some anodes use phosphor screens that emit light when hit by electrons, and then use lenses or cameras to capture the image. Alternatively, some MCPs can be used as detectors themselves, by measuring the change in voltage across the plate caused by the electron cascade.

MCPs are useful for detecting particles or photons that are too weak or too fast to be detected by other means. They can also provide spatial resolution, temporal resolution and high gain. They are widely used in applications such as image intensifiers, image converters, mass spectrometry, nuclear physics, X-ray imaging and electron microscopy.

Inside the microchannel plates

Major Specifications of a Microchannel Plate


Gain, which is the ratio of output to input electrons, by using a calibrated light source or a known particle source and comparing it with the expected or specified value.

Channel Diameter

The diameter and pitch of the microchannels, which affect the spatial resolution, open area ratio and gain of the MCP.

Channel Tilt Angle

The tilt angle of the microchannels, which affects the electron transit time, gain uniformity and magnetic field immunity of the MCP.

Open Area Ratio

The holey area percentage on the microchannel plates,OAR limits upper detection sensitivity of Microchannel plates, (a OAR around 60% will be sufficient for most of the cases)

Spatial Resolution

Spatial resolution, which is the ability to distinguish two adjacent points in an image, by using a test pattern or a point source and calculating the modulation transfer function or the line spread function.

Dark Noise

Dark noise, which is the output signal in the absence of input events, by using a dark box or a shielded chamber and counting the dark counts or measuring the dark current.

Quantum Efficiency

Measuring the quantum efficiency, which is the ratio of output electrons to incident photons, by using a calibrated light source with a known wavelength and intensity and comparing it with the expected or specified value.

Time Response

Time response, which is the duration and shape of the output pulse for a single input event, by using a fast oscilloscope or a time-to-digital converter and calculating the rise time, fall time, full width at half maximum and jitter.

Improving the resolution of MCP

There are different ways to improve the spatial resolution of a MCP, depending on the design and application of the MCP. Some of the possible ways are:

  • Reducing the diameter and pitch of the microchannels, which can increase the number of pixels and reduce the blurring effect of the channel walls.
  • Increasing the tilt angle of the microchannels, which can reduce the cross-talk between adjacent channels and improve the modulation transfer function.
  • Using a thinner MCP or a single MCP instead of a stack of MCPs, which can reduce the spreading of electrons and improve the image sharpness.
  • Using a high-resolution readout device, such as a phosphor screen, a pixel array or a delay line anode, which can accurately record the spatial distribution of electrons from the MCP.
  • Using an image processing technique, such as a centroid algorithm, which can enhance the contrast and sharpness of the image by eliminating noise and distortion.
  • Using a magnetic lens or an electrostatic lens, which can focus or correct the electron trajectories from the MCP and improve the optical-electronic imaging quality.

Reducing the diameter of the microchannel will increase both the gain and the resolution, as long as other conditions are the same. However, there may be some trade-offs or limitations, such as reducing the effective area, increasing the noise or decreasing the lifetime of the MCP.

Darknoise of the MCP

Dark noise will have some impact on the resolution. Dark noise is the output signal from the MCP in the absence of input events. It is caused by thermal emission, cosmic rays or radioactive decay in the MCP materials. Dark noise can reduce the resolution by adding random fluctuations and background counts to the output image or pulse. It can also increase the dead time and pile-up effects of the MCP .

Some of the parameter changes that will reduce the dark noise are:

  • Reducing the temperature of the MCP, which can decrease the thermionic emission of electrons from the photocathode and the channel walls.
  • Reducing the voltage of the MCP, which can decrease the gain and the probability of ion feedback and spurious pulses.
  • Shielding the MCP from external radiation sources, such as cosmic rays or radioactive decay, which can generate unwanted electrons or photons in the MCP materials.
  • Using a gating or pulsing technique, which can turn on and off the MCP in synchronization with the input signal, which can eliminate the background noise during the off periods.
  • Using a low noise MCP material or coating, which can have a lower secondary emission yield or work function, which can reduce the electron emission from the channel walls.

Stacking the Microchannel Plates

Stacking will increase the gain by multiplying, but not exactly by the product of the individual gains. For example, if MCP1 has a gain of 100 and MCP2 has a gain of 100, stacking them together will not necessarily result in a gain of 10,000. This is because there are some factors that affect the gain of a stacked MCP, such as:

  • The alignment of the microchannels: If the microchannels are aligned in parallel (Z-stack), the gain will be higher than if they are aligned at an angle (chevron or V-stack). This is because parallel alignment allows more electrons to enter the second MCP without hitting the wall, while angled alignment reduces cross-talk and improves spatial resolution.
  • The gap between the MCPs: If there is a small gap between the MCPs, the electrons can spread across multiple channels in the second MCP, which increases the gain. However, if the gap is too large, some electrons may be lost or deflected by external fields, which reduces the gain.
  • The voltage distribution: If the voltage is evenly distributed across the MCPs, the gain will be higher than if it is unevenly distributed. This is because uneven voltage distribution can cause variations in the electric field and secondary emission yield within and between the MCPs.

Typical Applications of Microchannel Plates

Microchannel plates (MCPs) are widely used in a variety of applications due to their high gain and fast response time. Some examples of applications where MCPs are used include:

  1. Electron multipliers: MCPs are used as electron multipliers in various instruments such as mass spectrometers and particle detectors.
  2. Imaging intensifiers: MCPs are used in imaging intensifiers to amplify low-light level signals, making them useful in applications such as night vision systems and scientific cameras.
  3. Time-of-flight mass spectrometry: MCPs are used in time-of-flight mass spectrometers to detect and amplify ions, allowing for the identification of molecules based on their mass-to-charge ratio.
  4. Particle detectors: MCPs are used in particle detectors to detect and amplify the signals from particles such as cosmic rays, neutrons, and protons.
  5. Laser-induced fluorescence spectroscopy: MCPs are used in laser-induced fluorescence spectroscopy to amplify the signals from the fluorescence of molecules, allowing for the identification and quantification of the molecules present in a sample.
  6. X-ray detectors: MCPs are used in x-ray detectors to amplify the signals from x-ray photons, making them useful in medical imaging and industrial inspection.
  7. Mass spectrometry imaging: MCPs are used in mass spectrometry imaging to amplify the signals from the ions toenhance the resolution and sensitivity of the images, enabling the visualization of molecular distributions in various samples such as biological tissues, polymers, and materials.
  8. Electron microscopy: MCPs are used in electron microscopy to amplify the signals from the electrons, allowing for the visualization of very small structures and features at high resolution.