Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Bending the Light with a Tiny Chip


A silicon chip developed by Caltech researchers acts as a lens-free projector--and could one day end up in your cell phone.

Imagine that you are in a meeting with coworkers or at a gathering of friends. You pull out your cell phone to show a presentation or a video on YouTube.

An image of Hajimiri's light-bending silicon chip. Credit: Ali Hajimiri/Caltech

But you don't use the tiny screen; your phone projects a bright, clear image onto a wall or a big screen. Such a technology may be on its way, thanks to a new light-bending silicon chip developed by researchers at Caltech.

The chip was developed by Ali Hajimiri, Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering, and researchers in his laboratory. The results were presented at the Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) conference in San Francisco on March 10.

Traditional projectors - like those used to project a film or classroom lecture notes - pass a beam of light through a tiny image, using lenses to map each point of the small picture to corresponding, yet expanded, points on a large screen. The Caltech chip eliminates the need for bulky and expensive lenses and bulbs and instead uses a so-called integrated optical phased array (OPA) to project the image electronically with only a single laser diode as light source and no mechanically moving parts.

Hajimiri and his colleagues were able to bypass traditional optics by manipulating the coherence of light - a property that allows the researchers to "bend" the light waves on the surface of the chip without lenses or the use of any mechanical movement. If two waves are coherent in the direction of propagation - meaning that the peaks and troughs of one wave are exactly aligned with those of the second wave - the waves combine, resulting in one wave, a beam with twice the amplitude and four times the energy as the initial wave, moving in the direction of the coherent waves.

"By changing the relative timing of the waves, you can change the direction of the light beam," says Hajimiri. For example, if 10 people kneeling in line by a swimming pool slap the water at the exact same instant, they will make one big wave that travels directly away from them. But if the 10 separate slaps are staggered - each person hitting the water a half a second after the last - there will still be one big, combined wave, but with the wave bending to travel at an angle, he says.

Using a series of pipes for the light - called phase shifters—the OPA chip similarly slows down or speeds up the timing of the waves, thus controlling the direction of the light beam. To form an image, electronic data from a computer are converted into multiple electrical currents; by applying stronger or weaker currents to the light within the phase shifter, the number of electrons within each light path changes - which, in turn, changes the timing of the light wave in that path. The timed light waves are then delivered to tiny array elements within a grid on the chip. The light is then projected from each array in the grid, the individual array beams combining coherently in the air to form a single light beam and a spot on the screen.

As the electronic signal rapidly steers the beam left, right, up, and down, the light acts as a very fast pen, drawing an image made of light on the projection surface. Because the direction of the light beam is controlled electronically - not mechanically - it can create a sort of line very quickly. Since the light draws many times per second, the eye sees the process as a single image instead of a moving light beam, says Hajimiri.

"The new thing about our work is really that we can do this on a tiny, one-millimeter-square silicon chip, and the fact that we can do it very rapidly - rapidly enough to form images, since we phase-shift electronically in two dimensions," says Behrooz Abiri, a graduate student in Hajimiri's group and a coauthor on the paper. So far, the images Hajimiri and his team can project with the current version of the chip are somewhat simple - a triangle, a smiley face, or single letters, for example. However, the researchers are currently experimenting with larger chips that include more light-delivering array elements that - like using a larger lens on a camera - can improve the resolution and increase the complexity of the projected images.

In their recent experiments, Hajimiri and his colleagues have used the silicon chip to project images in infrared light, but additional work with different types of semiconductors will also allow the researchers to expand the tiny projector's capabilities into the visible spectrum. "Right now we are using silicon technology, which works better with infrared light. If you want to project visible light, you can take the exact same architecture and do it in what's called compound semiconductor III-V technology," says Firooz Aflatouni, another coauthor on the paper, who in January finished his two-year postdoctoral appointment at Caltech and joined the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant professor. "Silicon is good because it can be easily integrated into electronics, but these other compound semiconductors could be used to do the same thing."

"In the future, this can be incorporated into a phone, and since there is no need for a lens, you can have a phone that acts as a projector all by itself," Hajimiri says. However, although the chip could easily be incorporated into a cell phone, he points out that a tiny projection device can have many applications - including light-based radar systems (called "LIDAR"), which are used in positioning, robotics, geographical measurements, and mapmaking. Such equipment already exists, but current LIDAR technology requires complex, bulky, and expensive equipment - equipment that could be streamlined and simplified to a single chip at a much lower cost.

"But I don't want to limit the device to just a few purposes. The beauty of this thing is that these chips are small and can be made at a very low cost - and this opens up lots of interesting possibilities," he says.

These results were described in a presentation titled "Electronic Two-Dimensional Beam Steering for Integrated Optical Phased Arrays." Along with Hajimiri, Abiri, and Aflatouni, Caltech senior Angad Rekhi also contributed to the work. The study was funded by grants from the Caltech Innovation Initiative, and the Information Science and Technology initiative at Caltech.

Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad


Brian Bell

(626) 395-5832

Brian Bell | EurekAlert!
Further information:

Further reports about: Arrays Caltech Chip Optical angle complexity measurements spectrum triangle waves

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht Micropatterning OLEDs using electron beam technology
27.04.2016 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Organische Elektronik, Elektronenstrahl- und Plasmatechnik FEP

nachricht Quantum computing closer as RMIT drives towards first quantum data bus
18.04.2016 | RMIT University

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Nuclear Pores Captured on Film

Using an ultra fast-scanning atomic force microscope, a team of researchers from the University of Basel has filmed “living” nuclear pore complexes at work for the first time. Nuclear pores are molecular machines that control the traffic entering or exiting the cell nucleus. In their article published in Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers explain how the passage of unwanted molecules is prevented by rapidly moving molecular “tentacles” inside the pore.

Using high-speed AFM, Roderick Lim, Argovia Professor at the Biozentrum and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute of the University of Basel, has not only directly...

Im Focus: 2+1 is Not Always 3 - In the microworld unity is not always strength

If a person pushes a broken-down car alone, there is a certain effect. If another person helps, the result is the sum of their efforts. If two micro-particles are pushing another microparticle, however, the resulting effect may not necessarily be the sum their efforts. A recent study published in Nature Communications, measured this odd effect that scientists call “many body.”

In the microscopic world, where the modern miniaturized machines at the new frontiers of technology operate, as long as we are in the presence of two...

Im Focus: Tiny microbots that can clean up water

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute Stuttgart have developed self-propelled tiny ‘microbots’ that can remove lead or organic pollution from contaminated water.

Working with colleagues in Barcelona and Singapore, Samuel Sánchez’s group used graphene oxide to make their microscale motors, which are able to adsorb lead...

Im Focus: ORNL researchers discover new state of water molecule

Neutron scattering and computational modeling have revealed unique and unexpected behavior of water molecules under extreme confinement that is unmatched by any known gas, liquid or solid states.

In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory describe a new tunneling state of...

Im Focus: Bionic Lightweight Design researchers of the Alfred Wegener Institute at Hannover Messe 2016

Honeycomb structures as the basic building block for industrial applications presented using holo pyramid

Researchers of the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) will introduce their latest developments in the field of bionic lightweight design at Hannover Messe from 25...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

The “AC21 International Forum 2016” is About to Begin

27.04.2016 | Event News

Soft switching combines efficiency and improved electro-magnetic compatibility

15.04.2016 | Event News

Grid-Supportive Buildings Give Boost to Renewable Energy Integration

12.04.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Quantum Logical Operations Realized with Single Photons

03.05.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Discovery of a fundamental limit to the evolution of the genetic code

03.05.2016 | Life Sciences

Cavitation aggressive intensity greatly enhanced using pressure at bubble collapse region

03.05.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>