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Updated 3:00 PM July 30, 2007




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Lens device shrinks huge light waves to pinpoints

Manipulating light waves, or electromagnetic radiation, has led to many technologies, from cameras to lasers to medical imaging machines that can see inside the human body.

Scientists at U-M have developed a way to make a lens-like device that focuses electromagnetic waves down to the tiniest of points. The breakthrough opens the door to the next generation of technology, says Roberto Merlin, professor of physics. His research on the discovery is published online in Science Express.

Everywhere we go, we are surrounded by electromagnetic waves that are generated naturally, such as sunlight, and artificially, by appliances such as microwave ovens and radio transmitters. Some waves are visible, and some are invisible.

Materials respond differently to various wavelengths, and when using electromagnetic waves, one usually is limited by the length of the light wave, Merlin says. For example, the amount of information one can store on a CD is limited by the number of bits that fit on the CD, and this is dictated by the length of the electromagnetic wave. The smaller the wavelength, the smaller the bit, which means more bits of data can be stored on the CD.

There is a huge push underway to find ways to get around this limitation, but until now scientists didn't have a good method for achieving that, Merlin says.

Using mathematical models, Merlin developed a formula that removes the wavelength limitation. Merlin now is working with Anthony Grbic, assistant professor in the College of Engineering, to build the device. They have filed for a patent.

The device will look like a plate or a disc, and is etched with a specific pattern. As the waves pass through the patterned lens, it is sculpted into different sizes and shapes. The lens does not refract, or bend the light waves—which is how conventional lenses work—but rather it reshapes the wave.

The discovery holds promise for applications in data storage, non-contact sensing, imaging and nanolithography.

With the new technology, a CD could hold up to 100 times more information by using teacher radiation rather than visible light, even though the length of a teacher wave is about 1000 times longer.

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