Scientists have developed a new lens that stretches just 2mm across and is finer than a human hair, which they believe will be able to greatly magnify nanoscale objects.

Made of paint whitener, the so-called ‘metalenses’, are unlike traditional camera lenses that use curved discs of glass.

Instead, the new metaleneses employ small pillars with a thin layer of transparent quartz that are tens of nanometers wide. These pillars effectively ‘slice up the light’ as it passes through.

What’s more, the scientists say the metalenses won’t have aberrations like the glass optics you use on your camera and they can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost.

“Correcting for chromatic spread over the visible spectrum in an efficient way, with a single flat optical element, was until now out of reach,” said Bernard Kress, Partner Optical Architect at Microsoft, who was not part of the research.

“The Capasso group’s metalens developments enable the integration of broadband imaging systems in a very compact form, allowing for next generations of optical sub-systems addressing effectively stringent weight, size, power and cost issues, such as the ones required for high performance AR/VR wearable displays.”

Eventually, they say, the metalenses will be rolled out into mass-market cameras and camera phones, with other applications ranging from microscopes to your contact lenses.

“This technology is potentially revolutionary because it works in the visible spectrum, which means it has the capacity to replace lenses in all kinds of devices, from microscopes to camera, to displays and cell phones,” said Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering and senior author of the paper.

“In the near future, metalenses will be manufactured on a large scale at a small fraction of the cost of conventional lenses, using the foundries that mass produce microprocessors and memory chips.”