Curved lenses, like those in cameras or telescopes, are stacked in order to reduce distortions and resolve a clear image. That's why high-power microscopes are so big and telephoto lenses so long.

While lens technology has come a long way, it is still difficult to make a compact and thin lens (rub a finger over the back of a cellphone and you'll get a sense of how difficult). But what if you could replace those stacks with a single flat, or planar, lens?

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have demonstrated the first planar lens that works with high efficiency 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, similar to a curved lens.

"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 camera, to displays and cell phones," said Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering and senior author of the paper. "In the near future, metalenses 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."

In order to focus red, blue, and green light, the team needed a material that wouldn't absorb or scatter light, said Rob Devlin, a graduate student and co-author of the paper. "We needed a material that would strongly confine light with a high refractive index. And in order for this technology to be scalable, we needed a material already used in industry." The team used titanium dioxide, a ubiquitous 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 metalens.

"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 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 metalens could provide better focus than a state-of-the art commercial lens.