A butterfly’s wings and a peacock’s feathers use nanoscale architecture to bend light and produce brilliant colors without pigments or dyes, and scientists have been trying to emulate nature’s design.
Now, scientists from mixed reality technology company Magic Leap Inc., working with Molecular Foundry researchers, have developed new, versatile ways to control and enhance the light-bending properties of synthetic optical nanostructures. Magic Leap’s technology creates visualizations that allow virtual imagery to coexist and interact with a viewer’s actual surroundings in real time.
The researchers’ achievement, reported in Scientific Reports, enables the manipulation of light over wide angles, and across the visible light spectrum, in a very efficient way. At the core of their work is a method to create two types of silicon-based, ultrathin optical components.
Many existing optical devices are also designed to control and manipulate light for sensing, imaging, and communications, for example, but their components can be bulky and expensive, such as those used in some medical imaging machines and DSLR cameras.
Shrinking these implements down to the nanoscale could usher in a new generation of affordable devices with advanced functionality for telecommunications, medicine, and consumer products. The list of potential applications includes “smart” surfaces that can repel water, ultrafast data processing, holograms, and even “invisibility” cloaks that can conceal objects by manipulating light.
The new technology relies on “optical metasurfaces,” which are two-dimensional structures engineered to interact with light waves in ways that natural materials cannot. The materials can have layers that are a few billionths of a meter (nanometers) thick, and contain nanoscale optical antennas that can control the reflection or transmission of light. Their ultrathin nature makes them easy to integrate into a variety of systems.