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  • Light Focused Through Opaques
Mar 2010
PARIS, March 11, 2010 — Materials such as paper, paint, and biological tissue are opaque because the light that passes through them is scattered in complicated and seemingly random ways. A new experiment conducted by researchers at the City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution (ESPCI) has shown that it's possible to focus light through opaque materials and detect objects hidden behind them — provided you know enough about the material.

To demonstrate their approach to characterizing opaque substances, the researchers first passed light through a layer of zinc oxide, which is a common component of white paints. By studying the way the light beam changed as it encountered the material, they were able to produce a numerical model called a transmission matrix, which included over 65,000 numbers describing the way that the zinc oxide layer affected light. They could then use the matrix to tailor a beam of light specifically to pass through the layer and focus on the other side. Alternatively, they could measure light emerging from the opaque material, and use the matrix to assemble of an image of an object behind it.

Knowing enough about the way light is scattered through materials would allow physicists to see through opaque substances, such as the sugar cube (right). In addition, physicists could use information characterizing an opaque material to put it to work as a high quality optical component, comparable to the glass lens (left). (Photo: American Physical Society)

In effect, the experiment shows that an opaque material could serve as a high quality optical element comparable to a conventional lens, once a sufficiently detailed transmission matrix is constructed. In addition to allowing us to peer through paper or paint, and into cells, the technique opens up the possibility that opaque materials might be good optical elements in nanoscale devices, at levels where the construction of transparent lenses and other components is particularly challenging.

The experiment is reported in the current issue of Physical Review Letters and is the subject of Viewpoint in APS Physics by Elbert van Putten and Allard Mosk of the University of Twente.

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A transparent optical component consisting of one or more pieces of optical glass with surfaces so curved (usually spherical) that they serve to converge or diverge the transmitted rays from an object, thus forming a real or virtual image of that object.
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
A term describing a substance that is impervious to light; the characteristic of a substance that has no luminous transmittance.
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
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