Research highlight

3D printing microlenses

Nature Photonics

June 28, 2016

Tiny 3D printed compound lenses of unprecedented optical quality can now be printed directly onto small structures including image sensors, or even the tip of an optical fibre - just two hairs wide - for use as an endoscope (used to explore the body cavity or hollow organs). Described in a paper published online this week in Nature Photonics, the high-performance compound lenses are only about 0.1 mm in size and enable multi-lens and microscale imaging systems around the size of a grain of salt.

Current lens manufacturing processes limit the size and shape of lenses, hampering their optical performance. Multi-lens elements with non-spherical shapes are required for high optical performance and to correct for aberrations. Timo Gissibl and colleagues used a femtosecond direct laser writing system to 3D print multi-lens systems that are about 0.1 mm in size. The multi-lens systems feature multiple singlet (simple) lenses that are combined into a compound lens within a supporting shell, and the systems can be printed at a rate of centimetres per second.

The authors print a triplet lens system directly onto the end of an optical fibre that is so thin it fits inside a typical syringe needle and show that objects 3 mm from the lens can be successfully imaged at the other end of the 1.7-m-long optic fibre. Finally, they show that arrays of lens systems with four refractive interfaces can be printed onto 5-megapixel CMOS image sensors (used in digital cameras). The authors conclude that their method paves the way towards printed optical miniature instruments such as next-generation endoscopes and high-quality imaging elements directly on CMOS sensors for miniaturized robots and drones.

doi: 10.1038/nphoton.2016.121

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