The world’s tiniest lens – as thin as two human hairs – has been created on a 3D printer.

It could lead to cameras the size of a grain of salt – revolutionising surgery, robotics and drone technology.

The ‘pinhead’ device is capable of razor sharp pictures and can be printed directly onto image sensors or even the tip of an endoscope – a camera used for internal examination of organs.

Described in Nature Photonics it is only about 0.1 mm thick – about the same as a piece of paper – and can produce multi-lenses of any shape.

So Dr Timo Gissibl and colleagues used which emits short pulses of light to harden material onto which the 3D multi-lens systems could be printed.

The researchers printed a triple lens system directly onto the end of an optical fibre that is so thin it fits inside a typical syringe needle.

Objects 3 mm from the lens were successfully reproduced at the other end of a five-and-a-half foot (1.7 m) long tube – meaning it could reinvent medical cameras used in internal examinations and operations.

Dr Gissibl, of Stuttgart University, said the method opens the door for printed optical miniature instruments such as next-generation endoscopes and miniaturised robots and drones.

He said: “Current lens systems are restricted in size, shape and dimensions by limitations of manufacturing.

“Multi-lens elements with non-spherical shapes are required for high optical performance and to correct for aberrations when imaging at wide angles and large fields.

“Here we present a novel concept in optics that overcomes all of the aforementioned difficulties and opens the new field of 3D printed micro- and nano-optics with complex lens designs.

“The unprecedented flexibility of our method paves the way towards printed optical miniature instruments such as endoscopes, fibre-imaging systems for cell biology, new illumination systems, miniature optical fibre traps, integrated quantum emitters and detectors, and miniature drones and robots with autonomous vision.”

The complete optical compound system is manufactured from one single material.

Dr Gissibl said: “Complex elements for beam shaping, endoscopy, illumination, high-performance imaging, inspection and microscopy on the micrometre scale are thus possible.

“Multi-element optical systems and even imaging systems with dimensions on the order of a grain of salt can be realised.

“This will lead to a plethora of novel devices with tremendous impact on biotechnology, medical engineering and safety/security monitoring.”

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