SALT LAKE CITY — As engineers design sleeker smartphones, University of Utah researchers have created a flat camera lens 20 times thinner than a human hair.
Their work was published in the scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this month and authored by U. electrical and computer engineering graduate students and U. associate professors.
The multilevel diffractive lenses could eliminate existing camera bumps on smartphones, according to U. associate professor and co-author of the paper, Rajesh Menon, who has worked on flat optics technology for the last eight years.
“Our lenses are thinner than conventional curved lenses so the whole camera system can also be much thinner,” he said.
Compared to conventional smartphone camera lenses that measure a couple of millimeters in thickness, the new lens is a thousand times thinner than a regular lens and performs as well as conventional lenses.
The thin lenses could create “cameras that are way more compact,” according to U. associate professor and report co-author Berardi Sensale Rodriguez.
Unlike conventional curved lenses that bend light before reaching the camera sensor to produce a digital picture, according to Menon, the newly developed lens uses micro-nanostructures to bend light.
Menon said today’s smartphone cameras carry between six to seven lenses. The new design could reduce that number to one or two lenses.
The new lens isn’t just useful to phones, but could also be applied to aerospace technology and devices used by military personnel, according to Menon.
Menon said the near weightlessness of the lens could keep drones in the air longer and make head-mounted night vision goggles that military personnel wear lighter.
“We were interested in making cameras that can be carried by soldiers,” he said. “Soldiers have to carry a lot of things on their head on the helmet, and that causes neck and head injury, so we can minimize that.”
The lenses can also be used for thermal imaging to see objects in the dark and detect heat signatures. The technology could be used to map forest fires or look for victims of natural disasters, according to researchers.
Rodriguez said the research could not be possible without the contributions and participation of the student researchers involved, who tested the lenses and developed the design’s algorithm.
Menon said the project has been interdisciplinary and has brought together professionals from backgrounds ranging from computer science, mathematics and engineering.
“It’s a very good example of how scientific advancement happens,” he said. “One of us — we don’t have enough expertise to do this work. But together we can achieve pretty important advances in technology.”
Menon said the university is in the process of patenting the lens and a company, Oblate Optics, is working to commercialize the technology.