Bell Labs finds potential improvements to lenses

Looking into the deep sea, researchers at Bell Labs may have discovered a new way to design lenses for optical networks and thereby boost traffic speeds.

According to Bell Labs, the skeleton of the brittlestar, an invertebrate starfish, contains calcite crystals that both provide structural support and act as optical receptors for the starfish.

Microlenses based on the brittlestar model could improve on current lenses’ ability to reduce light distortion, according to Joanna Aizenberg, the Bell Labs scientist who led the research. Most importantly, lensmakers could benefit by mimicking the shape of the brittlestar’s lenses, Aizenberg said.

“When we need lenses, it means that we want to concentrate light,” Aizenberg said. “The lenses we have now are very ‘lossy’, because we’re not able to do it the right away with the current technology. By concentrating light better, [networks] will be faster, because we won’t lose the signal on the way.”

Lenses are a key component of optical networks because they reflect light signals along the length of the optical fibre.

Aizenberg added, however, that despite the findings, there is uncertainty over component makers’ ability to build lenses based on the brittlestar’s design.

“This is an excellent example of something we can learn from nature,” said Federico Capasso, Bell Labs’ vice-president of physical research, in a statement. “These tiny calcite crystals are nearly perfect optical microlenses; much better than any we can manufacture today.”

Bell Labs’ research was aided by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles County, Calif.