Apr. 5, 2015

Wouldn't it be great if we can just use phones to take a snapshot of every day objects, send it to a 3D printer, and within minutes a replica of the original object has been reproduced? This feat may soon be possible thanks to a new, tiny high-resolution 3D imager developed at Caltech (The California Institute of Technology). Even better, you can reproduce a replica accurate to within microns of the original object, says the team.

3D imaging has been around for decades, but the most sensitive systems generally are too large and expensive to be used in consumer applications. This new cheap, compact yet highly accurate new device called nanophotonic coherent imager (NCI) uses an inexpensive silicon chip less than a millimeter square in size, so it can fit within any phones or cameras.

Caltech explains:

The new chip utilizes an established detection and ranging technology called LIDAR, in which a target object is illuminated with scanning laser beams. The light that reflects off of the object is then analyzed based on the wavelength of the laser light used, and the LIDAR can gather information about the object's size and its distance from the laser to create an image of its surroundings.

Such high-resolution images and information provided by the NCI are made possible because of an optical concept known as coherence. If two light waves are coherent, the waves have the same frequency, and the peaks and troughs of light waves are exactly aligned with one another. In the NCI, the object is illuminated with this coherent light. The light that is reflected off of the object is then picked up by on-chip detectors, called grating couplers, that serve as "pixels," as the light detected from each coupler represents one pixel on the 3-D image. On the NCI chip, the phase, frequency, and intensity of the reflected light from different points on the object is detected and used to determine the exact distance of the target point.

Caltech's first proof of concept of the NCI has only 16 coherent pixels. However, the researchers also developed a method for imaging larger objects by first imaging a four-pixel-by-four-pixel section, then moving the object in four-pixel increments to image the next section. With this method, they scan and create a 3D image of the "hills and valleys" on the front face of a U.S. penny—with micron-level resolution—from half a meter away. In the future, the current array of 16 pixels could also be easily scaled up to hundreds of thousands, says the team.

The image, taken from roughly half a meter (1.5 feet) away, shows the height of a US penny at various points. Credit: Ali Hajimiri/Caltech

The image shows an angled side view of the penny. Credit: Ali Hajimiri/Caltech

"The small size and high quality of this new chip-based imager will result in significant cost reductions, which will enable thousands new of uses for such systems by incorporating them into personal devices such as smartphones," says team leader Ali Hajimiri, Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech.



Posted in 3D Scanning


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