Research

UCF and UT win $400k for micro 3D printed light-bending research

The University of Central Florida (UCF) and the University of Texas (UT) have won a collaborative research award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Over the course of three years the NSF will provide the project with $400,049. This money will be used for 3D printing photon funnels.

False-colored demonstration of a 3D printed photon funnel. Image via Kuebler et al.
False-colored demonstration of a 3D printed photon funnel. Image via Kuebler et al.

As microscopic lattice-like constructs, photon funnels change the way light is concentrated. The devices have the potential to “transform how engineers design optical systems” – used in everything from cell phones and laptops to solar panels and internet cables.

Circumventing limitations

Optical devices are capable of creating, measuring or manipulating electromagnetic radiation that exists as waves, for example infrared, ultraviolet and visible light.

Though some control of waves is possible through the use of lenses, precision, especially with a moving light source like the sun, is incredibly hard to attain.

Stephen Kuebler, faculty member of the Nanophotonic Materials Group at Orlando, explains to UCF Today “the efficiency of an optical device is often limited,”

“[…] Our team will explore a fundamentally new approach for concentrating light called ‘photon funnels,’ that circumvent the limitations that refraction puts on ordinary optical systems.”

Bending light around corners

The research builds on previous work by Kuebler et al. that used a 3D printed lattice to demonstrate “the world’s tightest bend of an unguided optical beam”.

According to Kuebler, photon funnels made under the NSF grant “will be designed to leverage an optical phenomenon called ‘self-collimation’ to control how light propagates within an engineered lattice.”

Process of self-collimation in light rays. Top represents the natural directions of light rays. Bottom shows how the light focuses through specially design channels. Vectorization by Wikimedia Commons contributor Chris828, original by Pete Verdon
Process of self-collimation in light rays. Top represents the natural directions of light rays. Bottom shows how the light focuses through specially design channels. Vectorization by Wikimedia Commons contributor Chris828, original by Pete Verdon

In self-collimation, light rays, which are usually disordered, become focused in a particular direction by travelling through narrow passages. This creates a much more intense beam of light that, as proven in the image below, can also be manipulated to bend around corners.

Recoloured image of microscopic 3D printed lattice that can bend rays of light. Image via Kuebler et al.
Recoloured image of microscopic 3D printed lattice that can bend rays of light. Image via Kuebler et al.

In this previous study, researchers used the light-bending properties of the lattice to transmit light between microchips. The construct is a precursor to devices that could become a more efficient way to transport data.

Multiphoton lithography 

Fabrication of the lattices will be undertaken using a method of multiphoton lithography.

The technique is similar to SLA 3D printing as it uses a directed laser to make objects from a photosensitive material. The main difference in multiphoton lithography is that is takes place on a sub-millimetre scale.

In the project, Stephen Kuebler will be supported at UCF by Associate Professor Sasan Fathpour, and Raymond Rumpf will contribute as the Director of the Electromagnetics Lab (EM Lab) at UT.

The official Award Abstract from the NSF, states,

“The project will transform how engineers design optical systems because they could set aside traditional ray optics in certain applications and use photon funnels to concentrate light.”

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Featured image: Stephen Kuebler in microfabrication at the Nanophotonic Materials Group at UCF. Photo via today.ucf.edu

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