Philips FluidFocus: Variable Focus Fluid Lens

Philips FluidFocus - a variable-focus lens system with no mechanical moving parts - was demonstrated at CeBIT (Hannover, Germany) on March 3rd, 2004.



(See Philips' Fluid Lenses Bring Things into Focus.)

Update: Apparently, a French company, Varioptic, has previously claimed to hold "two fundamental patents" that cover this technology. See The $5 'no moving parts' fluid zoom lens - twice for more details.

Here's the scoop from the Philips press release:

"The Philips FluidFocus lens consists of two immiscible (non-mixing) fluids of different refractive index (optical properties), one an electrically conducting aqueous solution and the other an electrically non-conducting oil, contained in a short tube with transparent end caps. The internal surfaces of the tube wall and one of its end caps are coated with a hydrophobic (water-repellent) coating that causes the aqueous solution to form itself into a hemispherical mass at the opposite end of the tube, where it acts as a spherically curved lens.

The shape of the lens is adjusted by applying an electric field across the hydrophobic coating such that it becomes less hydrophobic – a process called ‘electrowetting’ that results from an electrically induced change in surface-tension. As a result of this change in surface-tension the aqueous solution begins to wet the sidewalls of the tube, altering the radius of curvature of the meniscus between the two fluids and hence the focal length of the lens. By increasing the applied electric field the surface of the initially convex lens can be made completely flat (no lens effect) or even concave. As a result it is possible to implement lenses that transition smoothly from being convergent to divergent and back again."
(See the press release for very nicely done schematic diagram and more details.)

The lens consumes almost no electrical power, offers remarkable durability, is extremely shock-resistant and operates over a wide temperature range. The type of liquid doesn't matter, as long as they don't mix. At least one lens was constructed using soup - it rendered color poorly, so no soup lens on your next cameraphone. You could even use oil and vinegar, according to Philips' physicists.

Science fiction fans are of course familiar with Frank Herbert's oil lens from his extraordinary 1965 novel Dune. Herbert described it as "oil held in static tension by an enclosing force field within a viewing tube." (Thanks to Phil Gross for the tip on this one.)

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