Most lenses are, by definition, curved. After all, they are named for their resemblance to lentils, and a glass lens made flat is just a window with no special powers.

But a new type of lens created at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) turns conventional optics on its head.

A major leap forward from a prototype device demonstrated in 2012, it is an ultra-thin, completely flat optical component made of a glass substrate and tiny, light-concentrating silicon antennas. Light shining on it bends instantaneously, rather than gradually, while passing through. The bending effects can be designed in advance, by an algorithm, and fine-tuned to fit almost any purpose.

With this new invention described Feb. 19 in Science, the Harvard research team has overcome an inherent drawback of a wafer-thin lens: light at different wavelengths (i.e., colors) responds to the surface very differently. Until now, this phenomenon has prevented planar optics from being used with broadband light. Now, instead of treating all wavelengths equally, the researchers have devised a flat lens with antennas that compensate for the wavelength differences and produce a consistent effect — for example, deflecting three beams of different colors by the same angle, or focusing those colors on a single spot.

“What this now means is that complicated effects like color correction, which in a conventional optical system would require light to pass through several thick lenses in sequence, can be achieved in one extremely thin, miniaturized device,” said principal investigator Federico Capasso.

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