Korean researchers have created nanoscale lenses with superhigh resolution using a novel self-assembly method. So far, they’ve demonstrated that the tiny lenses can be used for ultraviolet lithography, for imaging objects too tiny for conventional lenses, and for capturing individual photons from a light-emitting nanostructure called a quantum dot.
The limits on the resolution of both light microscopes and the photolithographic instruments used by the semiconductor industry are a consequence of light’s fundamental properties. Because of the way light scatters, or diffracts, even a perfect lens cannot distinguish two objects that are closer together than half the wavelength of the light used to image them.
Other researchers are making devices that overcome the diffraction limit using so-called metamaterials, which bend light in unnatural ways, or nanoscale metal gratings, which capture light through surface interactions. The new lenses, developed by researchers at the Pohang University of Science and Technology in Korea, overcome the diffraction limit because of their size. The lenses are flat on one side and spherical on the other and range in diameter from about 50 nanometers to three micrometers.
The size of each lens is on the same length scale as the wavelength of light that it interacts with, meaning that “the usual optics don’t hold,” says Chee Wei Wong, head of the Optical Nanostructures Laboratory at Columbia University in New York, who helped evaluate the lenses’ performance. And it is the first time the properties of a spherical lens this small have been tested, says Kwang Kim, head of the Center for Superfunctional Materials at Pohang University, who led the research. “No ideal nanoscale lens was available in the past,” says Kim.
Kim’s team makes the tiny spherical lenses by evaporating a solution containing cup-shaped organic molecules. First, the molecules, which are based on carbon rings, are dissolved in an organic solvent; then water is added, and the solution is allowed to slowly evaporate. During the evaporation process, the organic molecules form crystalline nanotubes that form the lenses. By changing the temperature and the evaporation rate, Kim says, it is possible to control the lenses’ ultimate size. Once the lenses have formed, they’re stable. The work is described in a paper published today in the journal Nature.