Zooming In on Applied Research

July 20, 2009

As far back as the 11th century, early scientists wrote about using lenses for magnification. Spectacles appeared 200 years later, and by 1609, Galileo was training telescopes on the night sky. 

The basic technology from then to now hasn't changed much: curve the surface of a piece of glass or mirror to gather and refocus light, making objects appear closer. Changing magnification and focus has meant changing a lens or using multiple lenses and varying distance between them. 

But now Pouria Valley, a doctoral candidate at the UA College of Optical Sciences, is turning the page on thousands of years of technology.

Under the guidance of optics professor Nasser Peyghambarian and as part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, Valley has improved upon a way to change the "zoom" and focus of a single flat lens without moving it a fraction of an inch.

The lens is actually liquid crystal between two pieces of glass less than a hair's width apart, each coated with a thin layer of conductive material etched in a proprietary pattern. By sending tiny electrical charges through that coating into the liquid crystal, Valley can alter the way it bends light, changing its magnification and focus as if physically shifting the space between two traditional lenses.

Earlier work on the project led to three patent licenses for Johnson and Johnson, which funded the original research. Those patents have since been purchased by another company using the technology to develop a new generation of "smart eyeglasses."

More recently, Valley and two other students formed another business plan around the improved invention through the UA's top-ranked McGuire Entrepreneurship Program, capturing the attention of Nokia Corporation in the process.

The world's largest manufacturer of mobile phones selected their  start-up — LenSense — as one of 12 finalists from some 100 competitors in its annual "Mobile Rules!" Challenge, a global contest to surface the most promising innovations for mobile devices. 

Working on the premise that "the best camera is the one you have with you," LenSense plans to supply the lens in one of every four mobile phone cameras worldwide by 2013. And that's just the beginning. 

Because Valley can achieve optical magnification with no moving parts and only a few volts of power, his liquid crystal, electro-zoom technology has a long horizon of potential applications: web cameras, medical devices, remote sensing and more.