Revolutionary flat-lens technology transforms near-infrared (NIR) optical sensing.
STMicroelectronics and Metalenz Inc. have announced a co-development and license agreement that will see ST develop manufacturing processes for Metalenz’s meta-optics technology. Metalenz is a spin-out of the group of Federico Capasso at Harvard University, where the technology was invented. This breakthrough technology is expected to be ready for mass production by the end of this year.
Metalenz’s multifunctional meta-surface optics enable new forms of sensing for the next generation of smartphones and other consumer devices, as well as healthcare and automotive applications. For example, a camera built around this new flat-lens technology can collect more light for brighter images and produce images of the same or better quality than traditional refractive lenses while consuming less power and taking up less space.
ST will integrate Metalenz’s meta-surface optics technology into its existing diffractive optics manufacturing process at its 300mm wafer fab in Crolles, France, leveraging ST’s position at the forefront of the fast-growing Near-Infrared (NIR) optical sensing market. Today, ST leads the market for time-of-flight (ToF) proximity and distance sensors with over 1 billion devices shipped to customers.
“With its advantages in power, efficiency, and performance, multifunctional optics technology can be a game changer for the next generation of optical sensors used in smartphones and other consumer devices, as well as healthcare and automotive applications,” said Eric Aussedat, Executive Vice President & General Manager of ST’s Imaging Division. “In combining Metalenz’s advances with our proprietary technology, manufactured in our state-of-the-art 300mm production facility in Crolles, this partnership will support ST’s continued offering of the most innovative and advanced optical-sensing solutions to its customers.”
“We are thrilled to be working with an industry leader like ST. The technology developed by Metalenz is a perfect complement to ST’s advanced capabilities and market position,” said Dr. Rob Devlin, CEO and co-founder of Metalenz. “We adopted a fabless business model so that we can focus on the innovation and design of revolutionary optics to transform sensing from smartphones to automobiles. Working with ST enables us to expand our product offering while leveraging ST’s high-volume fabrication capability and enables ST’s already differentiated product lines to reach new heights with Metalenz inside.”
The technology developed by Metalenz is a perfect complement to ST’s advanced capabilities. Combining semiconductor manufacturing and optics, ST will use advanced lithographic masks to build tunable diffractive-wavefront layers on a meta-surface in a semiconductor wafer fab. Like silicon ICs, the flat meta-surface lenses are processed in a semiconductor clean room using the same manufacturing technology. The lenses will feature nanostructures one-thousandth the width of a human hair. These nanostructures appropriately bend light rays to realize in a single layer the same functionality as a complex multi-element refractive lens system.
This technology is initially targeted at the fast-growing NIR market. NIR wavelengths are used in all the 3D sensing functions, such as face identification, autofocus assist, mini-LIDAR, and AR/VR depth mapping, that are becoming standard in today’s smartphone. Given the benefits, optical lenses made in a semiconductor wafer fab could someday be as common as traditional refractive lenses.