After several years of research, Metalenz, a Harvard spin-out focused on meta-optics, is aiming to bring the advanced imaging of large and expensive scientific lab equipment to smartphones. Metalenz is collaborating with STMicroelectronics to develop such optical sensing solutions.
Comparison between the raw images of a conventional camera and Metalenz’s meta-optic technology. Screenshot used courtesy of TechFirst and Metalenz
This article explores the operating principle of Metalenz’s metasurface technology, the company’s recent partnership with ST, and the implications of meta-optics in consumer designs.
From Academia to Business: The Origin of Metalenz
In 2016, a group of scientists at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) founded Metalenz to bring optics technology to consumer electronics. The company plans to achieve this feat by replacing conventional ultra-thin, flat optical microchip-based lenses with its imaging and illumination technology.
As a doctoral student at Harvard, Rob Devlin, co-founder and CEO of Metalenz, and his team demonstrated an industry first: viable meta-optic technology that could exhibit high-quality images with a metasurface. This demonstration was the foundation upon which Devlin and his team founded the company. The team now focuses on 3D sensing for a number of applications, including autonomous driving, robotics, medical imaging, and machine vision.
The Office of Technology Development (OTD) at Harvard University, which oversees technology commercialization and cultivates industrial research collaboration, played a significant role in Metalenz’s transition from academia to business. OTD granted the company an exclusive license to a portfolio of innovations in flat optics. This license resulted in a $10 million investment from several industry stakeholders, including Applied Ventures, Intel Capital, TDK Ventures, and 3M Ventures, which will help Metalenz expand toward large-scale fabrication for healthcare, consumer, and automotive applications.
Understanding Metalenz’s Meta-Optics and Metasurfaces
Meta-optics are advanced optics that incorporate the functions of up to five optical devices into a single planar layer. Scientists design meta-optics by controlling their features at a nanoscale, which significantly improves the light control capabilities of the device—that is, the device can efficiently maintain additional information from light that other conventional lenses discard.
The planar nature of meta-optics allows designers to fabricate them in existing semiconductor foundries, saving costs and simplifying manufacturing processes. Moreover, meta-optics enable high imaging functionalities in mobile applications due to smaller footprints than conventional lenses.
Conceptualization of metasurface technology. Image used courtesy of Metalenz
The recently-released metasurface technology from Metalenz can replace the optics in ST’s FlightSense Time-of-Flight (ToF) modules, designed for a range of applications, including robotics, aerospace, and mobile applications. Since the companies employed conventional semiconductor electronics manufacturing techniques, they can scale up production and widescale commercialization within a short period.
Metasurface technology offers several other benefits to modern-day optics, including large sensing surfaces, minimized footprint, and more advanced sensing capabilities. The wide sensing surface allows metasurface-incorporated devices to trap more light. These devices can also capture the full electromagnetic spectrum and high-quality 3D-sensing functionalities for LiDAR-based dimensional sensing in mobile applications. Finally, the minimized footprint simplifies and reduces the cost of fabrication.
STMicroelectronics and Metalenz Build a Partnership
In 2021, STMicroelectronics and Metalenz began co-developing optical sensing solutions for smartphones, consumer devices, healthcare, and automotive applications. In this license agreement, ST was set to develop processes for Metalenz’s meta-optics offerings.
With the companies’ most recent announcement, STMicroelectronics and Metalenz have released the VL53L8 direct Time-of-Flight (dToF) sensor, offering several benefits to industrial, automotive, and consumer applications, such as high performance, size reduction, power optimization, and cost-effectiveness. Metalenz claims to be the first company to commercialize meta-optics in consumer devices.
Depiction of meta-optic technology. Image used courtesy of Metalenz
ST provided its semiconductor front-end fabs for manufacturing the planar metasurface optics on silicon wafers. ST also incorporated its expertise in ToF sensing to develop a solution that can accurately measure the time it takes for an ultra-fast photon to travel to and reflect from the surface.
ST and Metalenz Target Consumer Markets
In addition to 3D-sensing and near-infrared (NIR) wavelength applications, ST and Metalenz’s technology may eventually appear in camera assist, augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR), facial recognition, and consumer LiDAR applications.