If you’ve ever held a high-quality camera lens, the first thing you notice is the weight. Thanks to layers and layers of thick glass hunks inside, they end up being very heavy. However, thanks to research being done at Harvard on something called metalenses, one day those giant glass-filled lenses might be obsolete.
The curved surfaces on a glass lens focus incoming light onto a camera’s digital sensor. The more precise (and expensive) the lens is, the better the image it will produce.
Metalenses work in a similar way, but they’re not made of precision-ground glass. Instead, a layer of transparent quartz is completely covered in a layer of tiny towers made from titanium dioxide. When arranged in specific patterns, those complex tower arrays can focus light exactly like a glass lens does. Except that these tiny metalenses end up being thinner than a human hair, and weigh almost nothing.
Sounds like a technology that only a well-funded organisation like the US military would be able to afford, right? Turns out that’s not the case. The reason giant camera lenses end up being so expensive is that the manufacturing process requires the glass to be perfectly ground and polished to incredibly precise tolerances — which slows down the mass production process.
Thanks to years of refining the manufacturing processes for electronics, producing these metalenses will be relatively easy and cheap using the same techniques used for microchips. The other huge advantage is that these lenses won’t have to be the size of Pringles cans. Once the technology is perfected, the same lens used in a DSLR could be squeezed into a smartphone. They say the best camera is the one you have with you, but soon your smartphone might actually be as good as it gets.