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Clustering million nano-lenses to create a flat lens

An image of lenses formed by clustering millions of nano-lenses, a new lens technology that promises a revolution in smartphone lenses. Image credit: Metalenz, Justin Knight

The digital cameras embedded in smartphones have made incredible progresses, killing point and shoot cameras and now getting close to kill reflex cameras. The quality of the photos has improved thanks to electronics (better digital sensors and faster processing chip) and to software (computational photography). What has seen very little improvement is the physical lens. Yes, the number of lenses has been growing, both the ones we see (as bumps on the phone surface) and as stacking (the new iPhone 12, as an example, stacks 7 lenses one on the other to improve quality) but the lens is still made of glass.

Now a new company, based in UK, promises to change the landscape: Metalenz has the goal of “transforming light via breakthrough flat-lens technology” (this is their eye catching slogan). For an in-dept view read this nice article on Wired.

Rather than using normal glass, Metalenz use meta-optics, structures made of silicon (glass is also made with silicon) and created with the same machinery/processes used in making silicon chips (the same silicon foundries are used). This of course has the added advantage of making mass production possible and affordable.

These meta-optic structures consist of clustering of nano lenses, each acting as waveguides. This is what a normal lens does too, the difference here is that in a normal lens the light beams are “bent”  -refracted/diffracted- by the lens surface curvature, whilst here the light beams are “guided” as needed by each single substructure getting rid of refraction side effects (different wavelengths refract differently creating coloured fringes in your photo and  you need to stack more lenses to correct these unwanted effects). There is no need of a curved surface, the lens is perfectly flat, nor for stacking more lenses hence the lens takes less space (no more bumps on your phone).

The benefits can be summarised as: smaller package, higher quality (up to 4x better in terms of controlled fringes and hence definition/sharpness) and lower cost in both production and assembly.

We should see meta-optics in our smartphones by the end of this year, 2022 models should embed this new optics, innovating for the first time in a while the optical part of the smartphone cameras.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.