ABSTRACT. The fundamental limitations of photoacoustic microscopy for detecting optically absorbing molecules are investigated both theoretically and experimentally. We experimentally demonstrate noise-equivalent detection sensitivities of 160,000 methylene blue molecules (270 zeptomol or 2.7×10-19 mol) and 86,000 oxygenated hemoglobin molecules (140 zeptomol) using narrowband continuous-wave photoacoustics. The ultimate sensitivity of photoacoustics is fundamentally limited by thermal noise, which can present in the acoustic detection system as well as in the medium itself. Under the optimized conditions described herein and using commercially available detectors, photoacoustic microscopy can detect as few as 100s of oxygenated hemoglobin molecules. Realizable improvements to the detector may enable single molecule detection of select molecules.
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