Harvard Scientists Control “Points of Darkness” for Remote Sensing and Covert Detection Applications

Metasurface That Generated Point Singularities

Harvard researchers have developed techniques to control “points of darkness” in light using metasurfaces, opening up new possibilities in fields like remote sensing, precision measurement, and covert detection. The team created precise dark spots that can capture atoms or act as measurement points for imaging, and developed resilient “polarization singularities,” stable dark spots in polarized optical fields. This is a scanning electron microscope image of the metasurface that generated the point singularities. Credit: Harvard University

Two studies report new methods for using metasurfaces to create and control dark areas called “optical singularities.”

Optical devices and materials allow scientists and engineers to harness light for research and real-world applications, like sensing and microscopy. Federico Capasso’s group at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering Applied Sciences (SEAS) has dedicated years to inventing more powerful and sophisticated optical methods and tools. Now, his team has developed new techniques to exert control over points of darkness, rather than light, using metasurfaces.

“Dark regions in electromagnetic fields, or optical singularities, have traditionally posed a challenge due to their complex structures and the difficulty in shaping and sculpting them. These singularities, however, carry the potential for groundbreaking applications in fields such as remote sensing and precision measurement,” said Capasso, the Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering at SEAS and senior corresponding author on two new papers describing the work.

Experimental Intensity Profiles

Experimental intensity profiles, with the point singularities labeled. Credit: Harvard University

In 2011, Capasso’s lab introduced metasurfaces, or sub-wavelength-spaced arrays of nanostructures. In 2016, they used metasurfaces to build high-performance metalenses – flat optical lenses comprising nanopillars that they fabricated using semiconductor lithography techniques – which unlocked a new strategy to focus light using extremely lightweight devices.

The newest studies from the Capasso group – published in Nature Communications and Science Advances – report how metasurface technology can harness not just light, but also darkness.

“Both of these studies introduce new classes of optical singularities – regions of designed darkness – using powerful but intuitive algorithms to inform the fabrication of metasurfaces,” said Soon Wei Daniel Lim, co-first author of the paper in Nature Communications with Joon-Suh Park.

In that study, Lim and collaborators designed and fabricated an optical device containing metasurfaces of titanium dioxide nanopillars that can control light to create an array of optical singularities.

To control exactly where these points of darkness appear, Lim used a computer algorithm to help him reverse engineer the design of the metasurface.

“I told the computer: Here’s what I want to achieve in terms of dark spots, tell me what shape and diameter the nanopillars should be on this metasurface to make this happen,” he said.

As light travels through the metasurface and lens, it generates a prescribed array of dark spots.

“These dark spots are exciting because they could be used as optical traps to capture atoms,” Lim said. “It’s possible this could be used to simplify the optical architecture used in atomic physics labs, replacing today’s conventional equipment – instruments that take up 30 feet of space on a lab table – with compact, lightweight optical devices.”

Dark spots aren’t just handy for trapping atoms. They can also be useful as highly precise reference positions for imaging.

“Points of darkness are much smaller than points of light,” Lim said. “As part of an imaging system, that makes them effective points of measurement to accurately discriminate between two different positions within a sample.”

In their Science Advances paper, the Capasso group described a new class of optical singularities: extremely stable points of darkness in a polarized optical field, known as polarization singularities.

“We’ve designed points of darkness that can withstand a wide range of perturbations — they are topologically protected,” said Christina Spaegele, first author of the paper. “This robustness opens the way to optical devices with high reliability and durability in various applications.”

Previous research achieved some polarization singularities, but the conditions for maintaining that perfect spot of darkness were extremely fragile, making them easily destroyed by stray light or other environmental conditions.

“By shining light through a specially-designed metasurface and focusing lens, we can produce an unwavering polarization singularity surrounded entirely by points of light – essentially creating a dark spot inside a sphere of brightness,” Spaegele said.

The technique is so robust that even introducing a defect to the metasurface doesn’t destroy the dark spot, but simply shifts its position.

“This degree of control could be especially useful for imaging samples in ‘hostile’ environments, where vibrations, pressure, temperature, and stray light would typically interfere with imaging behavior,” Spaegele said.

The team says these new developments in optical singularities have implications for remote sensing and covert detection.

“Points of darkness could be used to mask out bright sources while imaging a scene, allowing us to see faint objects that are otherwise overshadowed,” Capasso said. “Objects or detectors placed at these dark positions will also not give away their position by scattering light, allowing them to be ‘hidden’ without affecting the surrounding light.”


“Point singularity array with metasurfaces” by Soon Wei Daniel Lim, Joon-Suh Park, Dmitry Kazakov, Christina M. Spägele, Ahmed H. Dorrah, Maryna L. Meretska and Federico Capasso, 5 June 2023, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39072-6

“Topologically protected optical polarization singularities in four-dimensional space” by Christina M. Spaegele, Michele Tamagnone, Soon Wei Daniel Lim, Marcus Ossiander, Maryna L. Meretska and Federico Capasso, 16 June 2023, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adh0369

Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has protected the intellectual property arising from these studies and is exploring commercialization opportunities.

Additional authors who contributed to these papers include Dmitry Kazakov, Ahmed H. Dorrah, Maryna L. Meterska, Michele Tamagnone, and Marcus Ossiander.

This research was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the European Research Council.

3 Comments on "Harvard Scientists Control “Points of Darkness” for Remote Sensing and Covert Detection Applications"

  1. Nicholas Jones | July 5, 2023 at 4:43 pm | Reply

    My mind reels at the possibilities of using these metamaterials to construct detection retinas designed to detect background cosmic radiation, including neutrinos. If the incoming signals are split and directed to various targets customized to a specific species of said radiation, then compiled back into a composite image, the inside of any body of mass would be viewable in exquisite detail and, best of all, in a completely passive, therefore undetectable sensing system. We are talking about the sensors Mr. Spock was referencing. It takes an X-ray image without generating X-rays and blasting the target at point-blank range.

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  3. Nice information thanks for sharing.

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