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Ultrathin Flat Lens Could Enable Smartphones as Thin as a Credit Card

Scientists at Harvard University, Texas A&M, and two Italian universities are reporting development of a revolutionary new lens — flat, distortion-free, and so small that more than 1,500 would fit across the width of a human hair — capable in the future of replacing lenses in applications ranging from cell phones and cameras, to fiber-optic communication systems. The advance could lead to smartphones as thin as a credit card.

The researchers explained that the lenses used to focus light in eyeglasses, microscopes, and other products use the same basic technology dating to the late 1200s, when spectacle lenses were introduced in Europe. Existing lenses are not thin or flat enough to remove distortions, such as spherical aberration, astigmatism and coma, which prevent the creation of a sharp image. Correction of those distortions requires complex solutions, such as multiple lenses that increase weight and take up space. To overcome these challenges, the scientists sought to develop a new super-thin flat lens.

Although the new lens is ultra-thin, it has a resolving power that actually approaches the theoretical limits set by the laws of optics. The lens surface is patterned with tiny metallic stripes that bend light differently as one moves away from the center, causing the beam to sharply focus without distorting the images. The current version of the lens works at a specific design wavelength, but the scientists say it can be redesigned for use with broadband light.

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