ST and Metalenz partner on metasurface optics technology
Semiconductor company STMicroelectronics has partnered with Metalenz, a spin-out of the group of Federico Capasso at Harvard University, on a co-development and licence agreement that will see ST develop manufacturing processes for Metalenz’s metasurface optics technology for next-generation smartphones, consumer devices, healthcare and automotive applications.
The technology used in today’s smartphones is changing and developing at a very fast rate to squeeze more and better functionality into less space. Still, the lenses remain essentially unchanged. Metasurface optics introduces a new breed of lens, which works on very different fundamental principles. Instead of using bulkier curved surfaces, metasurface optics combines multiple complex optical functions in a single flat layer. This shrinks the size of each lens element while also cutting the number of lens elements needed, reducing the size of the optical lens, the number of components, the complexity of assembly and the overall cost. A camera built around this new flat-lens technology can therefore collect more light for brighter images and produce images of the same or better quality than traditional refractive lenses while consuming less power and taking up less space, the company claims.
Combining semiconductor manufacturing and optics, ST will use advanced lithographic masks to build tuneable diffractive-wavefront layers on a metasurface in a semiconductor wafer fab. Like silicon ICs, the flat metasurface lenses are processed in a semiconductor clean room using the same manufacturing technology. The lenses will feature nanostructures one-thousandth the width of a human hair. These nanostructures appropriately bend light rays to realise in a single layer the same functionality as a complex multi-element refractive lens system.
ST will integrate Metalenz’s metasurface optics technology into its existing diffractive optics manufacturing process at its 300 mm wafer fab in Crolles, France, leveraging its position at the forefront of the fast-growing near-infrared (NIR) optical sensing market, where the technology will initially be targeted. NIR wavelengths are used in all the 3D sensing functions — such as face identification, autofocus assist, mini LiDAR and AR/VR depth mapping — that are becoming standard in today’s smartphone. Given the benefits, optical lenses made in a semiconductor wafer fab could someday be as common as traditional refractive lenses.
“With its advantages in power, efficiency and performance, multifunctional optics technology can be a game changer for the next generation of optical sensors used in smartphones and other consumer devices, as well as healthcare and automotive applications,” said Eric Aussedat, Executive Vice President & General Manager of ST’s Imaging Division. “In combining Metalenz’s advances with our proprietary technology, manufactured in our state-of-the-art 300 mm production facility in Crolles, this partnership will support ST’s continued offering of the most innovative and advanced optical-sensing solutions to its customers.”
“The technology developed by Metalenz is a perfect complement to ST’s advanced capabilities and market position,” added Dr Rob Devlin, CEO and co-founder of Metalenz. “We adopted a fabless business model so that we can focus on the innovation and design of revolutionary optics to transform sensing from smartphones to automobiles. Working with ST enables us to expand our product offering while leveraging ST’s high-volume fabrication capability and enables ST’s already differentiated product lines to reach new heights with Metalenz inside.”
The breakthrough technology is expected to be ready for mass production by the end of this year.
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