Blazing a Trail for Massachusetts in Advanced Metaoptics
What do virtual reality and augmented reality (AR/VR) smart glasses, automobile Lidar, cell phone camera lenses, night vision, terrain mapping, and facial recognition have in common? All are technologies dramatically improved by metalenses—extremely thin optical structures that combine multiple functions of traditional and bulky curved optics into an ultracompact package.
In 2019, the World Economic Forum recognized metalenses as one of the top 10 emerging technologies, key to enabling a wide range of next-generation products in consumer, health care, aerospace, and defense markets. Massachusetts has long been a leader in optics research and manufacturing, both through work at the state’s higher education institutions and in industry. Today, more than 40 companies with over 3,000 combined employees actively work in advanced optics in the commonwealth.
Now, development and adoption of these technologies is poised to accelerate substantially in Massachusetts, thanks to a $5 million award from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech), announced in October 2023. The grant will enable UMass Amherst to establish an open-access Advanced Optics Fabrication and Characterization Facility on its campus, a unique resource available to industry partners and researchers across the state. The MassTech grant also funds a major expansion of industry partner Electro Magnetic Applications Inc.’s (EMA) test and characterization capabilities to evaluate these new designs in real-world and harsh environments.
“The state-of-the-art tools and capabilities available in these facilities will help significantly reduce the risk for many small, and even larger, companies working in this field,” said James Watkins, professor of polymer science and engineering at UMass Amherst and coprincipal investigator on the project. “By bridging the ‘valley of death,’ this will help spur companies to innovate, scale, and bring new products to market.”
An Optics Revolution
Traditional lenses, which are curved and bulky, have been in use for hundreds of years. Over about the past decade, scientists have developed ultrathin metalenses, or flat lenses. About 1/100th the thickness of a human hair, these new lenses can deliver advanced capabilities and better performance, often doing things that could only previously be accomplished by large optical “trains” of four to six traditional lenses.
“They allow for much higher performance in a much smaller package,” said Watkins. A single metalens can perform multiple functions, as dictated by the size, shape, and arrangement of individual optical elements.
“In addition to replacing individual lenses and optical components, metalenses can offer novel functionalities and enable miniature on-chip optical systems such as cameras, microscopes, spectrometers, lidars, etc.,” said the project’s coprincipal investigator Amir Arbabi, UMass Amherst assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Arbabi is a pioneer in the field of metaoptics, who has invented and demonstrated many metaoptics devices and systems over the past decade and holds more than 40 patents in the field. “Such fully integrated optical systems can be fabricated using metaoptics technology at a low cost because of the elimination of the costs associated with alignment and assembly.”
Traditionally, metalenses have been manufactured in semiconductor foundries, which are expensive to construct and use a subtractive manufacturing process—essentially, carving out patterns in a layer of material.
The new Optics Fabrication and Characterization Facility at UMass utilizes the additive manufacturing process studied in Watkins’ research group. As he explains it, additive manufacturing is far more efficient in terms of cost, materials, and energy usage than the traditional subtractive approach, and can be done in smaller, less expensive facilities.
“Our group works on creating materials that have structures that are too small to see, but that end up providing advanced devices with new levels of performance that have a big impact,” explained Watkins.
The group’s work spans energy generation and energy storage—including batteries that charge very quickly and can be incorporated directly into the structure of a device or a vehicle—and next-generation optics.
“Our optics work can lead to truly immersive smart glasses that are light and easy to wear; terrain mapping that enables safer self-driving cars; facial recognition that opens devices in low light; and improved medical imaging," said Watkins.
A Track Record of Leadership
The new optics facility at UMass represents the latest in a collection of open-access, state-of-the-art scientific facilities on campus, serving hundreds of outside researchers in academia and industry each year. These include facilities for advanced manufacturing, such as Roll-to-Roll Fabrication and Processing and other Core Facilities at the university’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences.
UMass also has a long track record of leadership in scalable nanomanufacturing. In 2006, it established the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing (CHM), led by Watkins, with a 10-year, $36 million award from the National Science Foundation. The center was succeeded by the Institute for Hierarchical Manufacturing (IHM), also directed by Watkins and still active today, with annual funding exceeding $5 million.
In October 2023, UMass faculty, including Watkins and Jeff Morse, director of the Roll-to-Roll facility, chaired a three-day International Conference on Nanoimprint and Nanoprint Technologies (NNT 2023) in Boston, convening experts in advanced optics from around the U.S., Europe, and Asia. About 50 attendees traveled to Amherst to tour the open-access facilities at UMass.
The new UMass facility will house precision imprint tools to demonstrate scale fabrication; advanced optics characterization capabilities to test and validate new optical components; and a suite of software tools to create and test new designs. The facility will be staffed by experts to train and assist users, and to educate students and others in the techniques.
EMA’s expanded test, simulation, and characterization facilities will allow parts manufactured at the UMass facility—as well as in other Massachusetts facilities—to be evaluated across real-world and harsh environments, including space. The Colorado-based EMA established the world’s first commercial space radiation effects test facility at the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield in 2019, serving government, commercial, and academic institutions.
“New tech is often risky. Facilities like these—which enable companies, small and large, to work with emerging technology and to develop prototypes—reduce the risk of adapting new approaches,” said Watkins. “That is crucial to unlock the investments required for companies to move forward, bringing new tech out of academic laboratories and into the market, where they can benefit society and the economy."
The project also expands educational and hands-on training opportunities for students at UMass, as well as at Springfield Technical Community College and Berkshire Community College.
“The economic impacts of this project cannot be overstated,” said Justin McKennon, principal scientist at EMA, noting that EMA will create six to eight new jobs in Pittsfield as a result of the project. "We believe that this project will introduce hundreds of people, including many students, to this new area. We’ll be creating not just industry-leading manufacturing and characterization capabilities within the commonwealth, but also establishing a trained and educated workforce pipeline for companies in this emerging space.”
The Path to Commercialization
UMass Amherst’s strength in nanomanufacturing is particularly focused on designing and producing parts well-positioned for eventual commercialization.
“In our lab, we tend to focus on pathways that lend themselves to scalability,” said Watkins. “In other words, we want to choose a path that enables us to make not just one of something that demonstrates an advance or something new, but rather a path that can ultimately be transferred to manufacturing to make many, so that advance in the lab can make it into products people can use.”
In 2021, Watkins was awarded a National Science Foundation “Partnerships for Innovation” grant, which aims to assist researchers in accelerating the development of breakthrough technologies. With this support, together with his students and post-docs, Watkins has spun out a start-up called Myrias Optics, Inc., which performs additive manufacturing of metalenses and waveguides. The company is working on related technologies, such as AR/VR “smart” glasses, LIDAR, terrain mapping, facial recognition, and ultracompact optical components. In December 2023, Myrias announced it had secured a $3 million seed investment led by Asia Optical Inc.
“Our group developed and patented the core technology over a number of years and now we have identified applications and markets where it will have a significant impact in terms of delivering new levels of performance and reducing cost,” said Watkins. “Because we are using additive manufacturing, our process is also more energy- and materials-efficient than traditional approaches, which makes it more sustainable.”
“Practical application and manufacturability are critical for making a paradigm-shifting technology like metaoptics a commercial reality," said Vince Einck, Myrias chief technology officer and a former post-doc in the Watkins research group. "Myrias Optics brings high-quality and easily processable materials and efficient additive manufacturing together with strategic customers and partnerships to ensure an efficient pipeline from conception to product. We expect our platform technology to revolutionize optics across a breadth of industries and bring true value to our customers and society.”
Watkins noted their eventual goal is to establish a metaoptics foundry in Massachusetts.
This story was originally published in October 2023.