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Seeing in stereo: Engineers invent lens for 3-D microscope

COLUMBUS, Ohio Engineers at Ohio State University have invented a lens that enables microscopic objects to be seen from nine different angles at once to create a 3D image.

Other 3D microscopes use multiple lenses or cameras that move around an object; the new lens is the first single, stationary lens to create microscopic 3D images by itself.

Allen Yi, associate professor of integrated systems engineering at Ohio State, and postdoctoral researcher Lei Li described the lens in a recent issue of the Journal of the Optical Society of America A.

Yi called the lens a proof of concept for manufacturers of microelectronics and medical devices, who currently use very complex machinery to view the tiny components that they assemble.

Though the engineers milled their prototype thermoplastic lens on a precision cutting machine, the same lens could be manufactured less expensively through traditional molding techniques, Yi said.

"Ultimately, we hope to help manufacturers reduce the number and sizes of equipment they need to miniaturize products," he added.

The prototype lens, which is about the size of a fingernail, looks at first glance like a gem cut for a ring, with a flat top surrounded by eight facets. But while gemstones are cut for symmetry, this lens is not symmetric. The sizes and angles of the facets vary in minute ways that are hard to see with the naked eye.

"No matter which direction you look at this lens, you see a different shape," Yi explained. Such a lens is called a "freeform lens," a type of freeform optics.

Freeform optics have been in use for more than a decade. But Lei Li was able to write a computer program to design a freeform lens capable of imaging microscopic objects.

Then Yi and Li used a commercially available milling tool with a diamond blade to cut the shape from a piece of the common thermoplastic material polymethyl methacrylate, a transparent plastic that is s

Contact: Allen Yi
Ohio State University

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