Pendry and others are making progress to a Perfect lens using metamaterials

A Russian engineer Victor Veselago had theorised a lens made out of material with a negative refractive index. In 1999, John Pendry checked whether such a lens could be perfect, expecting the usual answer – that it wasn’t perfect. Pendry didn’t get it; the theory said it was perfect. He was astonished and so was everybody else. The mechanism of a perfect lens is very strange.

The concept of metamaterials opened up the field. A metamaterial is a material whose electric and magnetic properties are determined as much by its structure as by its chemical composition, although the structure must be on a scale much smaller than the wavelength of light you’re using.

A perfect lens is very hard to realise in the lab. People have achieved sub-wavelength resolution that is more than 10 times as good as a normal lens, but it is far from being used as a microscope.

There is a halfway house that John Pendry’s research team in London are working on – a light harvester. It concentrates light on a very small area. Ordinarily the area you can shrink to will be limited by the wavelength of the light you are using, as an ordinary lens is. They are using metamaterials to concentrate light onto an area less than a square nanometer. Once you do that, you have the potential to make sensors for single molecules.

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