Skip to main content

June 3rd, 2016

A thinner, flatter lens

Discovery may lead the way to lighter, less-bulky cameras, telescopes, and cellphones

By Leah Burrows, Harvard Paulson School

June 2, 2016 - Curved lenses like those in cameras or telescopes are stacked to reduce distortions and clarify images. That’s why high-powered microscopes are so big and telephoto lenses so long. While lens technology has improved, it is still difficult to make a compact and thin lens.

But researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have demonstrated the first flat — or planar — lens that works highly efficiently within the visible spectrum of light, covering the whole range of colors from red to blue.

The lens can resolve nanoscale features separated by distances smaller than the wavelength of light. It uses an ultrathin array of tiny waveguides, known as a metasurface, which bends light as it passes through. The research is described in the journal Science.

Scanning electron microscope micrograph of the fabricated meta-lens. The lens consists of titanium dioxide nanofins on a glass substrate. Scale bar: 2 mm. (Image courtesy of the Capasso Lab.)

“This technology is potentially revolutionary because it works in the visible spectrum, which means it has the capacity to replace lenses in all kinds of devices, from microscopes to cameras to displays and cell phones,” said Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering, the senior author of the paper. “In the near future, meta-lenses will be manufactured on a large scale at a small fraction of the cost of conventional lenses, using the foundries that mass-produce microprocessors and memory chips.”

Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has filed patents on this and related technologies and is actively pursuing commercial opportunities.

“Correcting for chromatic spread over the visible spectrum in an efficient way, with a single flat optical element, was until now out of reach,” said Bernard Kress, partner optical architect at Microsoft, who was not part of the research. “The Capasso Group’s meta-lens developments enable the integration of broadband imaging systems in a very compact form, allowing for next generations of optical sub-systems addressing effectively stringent weight, size, power, and cost issues, such as the ones required for high performance AR/VR [augmented reality/virtual reality] wearable displays.”

In order to focus red, blue, and green light — light in the visible spectrum — the team needed a material that wouldn’t absorb or scatter light, said Rob Devlin, a graduate student in the Capasso Lab and co-author of the paper.

“We needed a material that would strongly confine light with a high refractive index,” he said. “And in order for this technology to be scalable, we needed a material already used in industry.”

The team used titanium dioxide, a material found in everything from paint to sunscreen, to create the nanoscale array of smooth and high-aspect ratio nanostructures that form the heart of the meta-lens.

“We wanted to design a single planar lens with a high numerical aperture, meaning it can focus light into a spot smaller than the wavelength,” said Mohammadreza Khorasaninejad, a postdoctoral fellow in the Capasso Lab and first author of the paper. “The more tightly you can focus light, the smaller your focal spot can be, which potentially enhances the resolution of the image.”

The team designed the array to resolve a structure smaller than a wavelength of light, around 400 nanometers across. At these scales, the meta-lens could provide better focus than a state-of-the art commercial lens.

Read the entire article in the Harvard Gazette

Tags: federico capasso, optics, physical science

Press Contact

Caroline Perry
(617) 495-4157