Ultra-thin lens being developed in Utah to change future smartphones and drones

SALT LAKE CITY - Researchers at The University of Utah have come up with a lens that’s thinner than a human hair.

The work on the ultra-thin lens started about a year and a half ago.

Researchers say the idea came from looking at the bump on the back of some smartphones, where the cameras are. They thought to themselves, ‘what if we could make the lens really flat and remove the bump while keeping the same zoom functions.’

Sourangsu Banerji, a Ph.D. Student at The University of Utah says, “For the past year, we worked hard. We modeled the lenses, so we made them, and then we tested them.”

While regular lenses for smartphone cameras are a couple of millimeters thick, the new ultra-thin lens is only a few microns thick. To put that into perspective, it’s about 20 times thinner than a human hair.

The ultra-thin lens also costs a lot less to make because it's made from plastic rather than glass.

Electrical and Computer Engineering graduate student, Monjurul Meem says, “These lenses are actually pretty cheap. They're made of polymers and they don't cost much to manufacture.”

The research team also built thermal imaging and night vision into the ultra-thin lens, opening it up to other uses outside of photography.

Post-Doctoral Research Assistant, Apratim Majumder says, “The thermal lens that we have right now can be used in drones and also for armies and soldiers who have to carry heavy night vision goggles.”

The ultra-thin lens would also allow for huge improvements to drones like making them lighter so they can fly for longer, map forest fires using thermal imaging, or look for victims of natural disasters.

“We can cut down both the cost and the weight of imaging systems which in the long run should be helpful,” says Majumder.

This research can also change the future of smartphones too, by allowing them to get thinner over time.

“The opportunities of this technology are endless […] maybe make an iPhone which is as thick as a sheet of paper,” says Banerji.

The ultra-thin lens could also eliminate the need for multiple lenses in smartphones like we’re seeing with the new iPhone 11 Pro and it’s three different lenses for different zoom levels.

“If we put our lens in, instead of the iPhone lens, then we can do this with a single lens, then we wouldn’t have to add multiple lenses which would cut the cost by almost half,” says Meem.

No word yet on when these ultra-thin lenses could go into production and start being used by smartphone makers.

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