From Paulson: “Building a better microscope​”

Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

May 9, 2017
Leah Burrows

Harvard researchers integrated an immersion meta-lens into a commercial scanning confocal microscope, achieving an imaging spatial resolution of approximately 200 nm. (Image courtesy of the Capasso Lab/Harvard SEAS)

Metasurface could provide alternative to centuries-old technique.

A team of researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) has developed the first flat lens for immersion microscopy. This lens, which can be designed for any liquid, may provide a cost-effective and easy-to-manufacture alternative to the expensive, centuries-old technique of hand polishing lenses for immersion objectives.

The research is described in Nano Letters.

“This new lens has the potential to overcome the drawbacks and challenges of lens-polishing techniques that have been used for centuries,” said Federico Capasso, the Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering at SEAS, and senior author of the paper.

When light hits an object, it scatters. Optical microscopes work by collecting that scattered light through a series of lenses and reconstructing it into an image. However, the fine detailed geometrical information of an object is carried by the portion of scattered light propagating with angles too large to be collected. Immersing the object in a liquid reduces the angles and allows for the capturing of light that was previously impossible, improving the resolving power of the microscope.

Based on this principle, immersion microscopes use a layer of liquid — usually water or oil — between the specimen slide and the objective lens. These liquids have higher refractive indices compared to free space so the spatial resolution is increased by a factor equal to the refractive index of the liquid used.

Immersion microscopes, like all microscopes, are comprised of a series of cascading lenses. The first, known as the front lens, is the smallest and most important component. Only a few millimeters in size, these semicircular lenses look like perfectly preserved rain drops.

Because of their distinctive shape, most front lenses of high-end microscopes produced today are hand polished. This process, not surprisingly, is expensive and time-consuming and produces lenses that only work within a few specific refractive indices of immersion liquids. So, if one specimen is under blood and another underwater, you would need to hand-craft two different lenses.

To simplify and speed-up this process, SEAS researchers used nanotechnology to design a front planar lens that can be easily tailored and manufactured for different liquids with different refractive indices. The lens is made up of an array of titanium dioxide nanofins and fabricated using a single-step lithographic process.

The array of titanium dioxide nanofins can be tailored for any immersion liquid (Image courtesy of Capasso Lab)

“These lenses are made using a single layer of lithography, a technique widely used in industry,” said Wei Ting Chen, first author of the paper and postdoctoral fellow at SEAS. “They can be mass-produced with existing foundry technology or nanoimprinting for cost-effective high-end immersion optics.”

Using this process, the team designed metalenses that can not only be tailored for any immersion liquid but also for multiple layers of different refractive indices. This is especially important for imaging biological material, such as skin.

“Our immersion meta-lens can take into account the refractive indices of epidermis and dermis to focus light on the tissue under human skin without any additional design or fabrication complexity,” said Alexander Zhu, coauthor of the paper and graduate student at SEAS.

“We foresee that immersion metalenses will find many uses not only in biological imaging but will enable entirely new applications and eventually outperform conventional lenses in existing markets,” said Capasso.

See the full article here .

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Through research and scholarship, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) will create collaborative bridges across Harvard and educate the next generation of global leaders. By harnessing the power of engineering and applied sciences we will address the greatest challenges facing our society.

Specifically, that means that SEAS will provide to all Harvard College students an introduction to and familiarity with engineering and technology as this is essential knowledge in the 21st century.

Moreover, our concentrators will be immersed in the liberal arts environment and be able to understand the societal context for their problem solving, capable of working seamlessly withothers, including those in the arts, the sciences, and the professional schools. They will focus on the fundamental engineering and applied science disciplines for the 21st century; as we will not teach legacy 20th century engineering disciplines.

Instead, our curriculum will be rigorous but inviting to students, and be infused with active learning, interdisciplinary research, entrepreneurship and engineering design experiences. For our concentrators and graduate students, we will educate “T-shaped” individuals – with depth in one discipline but capable of working seamlessly with others, including arts, humanities, natural science and social science.

To address current and future societal challenges, knowledge from fundamental science, art, and the humanities must all be linked through the application of engineering principles with the professions of law, medicine, public policy, design and business practice.

In other words, solving important issues requires a multidisciplinary approach.

With the combined strengths of SEAS, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the professional schools, Harvard is ideally positioned to both broadly educate the next generation of leaders who understand the complexities of technology and society and to use its intellectual resources and innovative thinking to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Ultimately, we will provide to our graduates a rigorous quantitative liberal arts education that is an excellent launching point for any career and profession.