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We share new visions

Increasingly less complex: Dr. Stefan Risse holds the freeform optical element like the gem that it is. It alone can provide what complex lens systems have done in the past – as with the VarioCAM® HD infrared camera, here with Michael Degel.

Moving beyond spherical optical lenses. The era of freeform optical shapes has now begun. And the Optical Valley in and around Jena has been coming together to pool its potential to make this technology of the future a reality. The ƒo⁺ project was initiated by the German Research Ministry with the aim of mastering the new technology and establishing it in the world of optics.  Seven companies and two research institutes have joined forces with Jenoptik on this trailblazing project.

Geometrical form can now follow function

Optics can now be shaped to meet the particular purpose they are to serve. Michael Degel, the ƒo⁺ project manager for Jenoptik, presented and described one such example, a cube-shaped infrared element as unassuming as an ice cube. Degel used a computer image to explain its internal properties: “The light is redirected several times and refracted; it incorporates all the relevant optical information.”

Compact optical elements are beginning to replace lens systems

This has also made objectives smaller and lighter. Fire departments, for example, benefit from this, as infrared camera optics fit into helmets, allowing firefighters to see through dense smoke. Self-driving cars put this innovation to use when it comes to automatically recognizing people and animals crossing the street. The new approach is also appreciated in aerospace, where every additional ounce can drive mission costs upward. Thousands of other still unknown applications are sure to follow.

Researchers are working together to make this all possible

They have now learned to implement up to six degrees of optical freedom – in contrast with only one in evenly curved spheres. Researchers have already moved forward from establishing the mathematical foundations and developing manufacturing and measurement technology through to complete infrared optic prototypes. Following the testing phase, product development is slated to begin this year.

The next step for the Optical Valley

Once the federally funded ƒo⁺ mission is accomplished, the region is set to follow up with the WK+ program to begin in January 2018. Established partners and new ones alike are planning to join forces to make freeform optics ready for the industry in the visible light range as well. This is a most ambitious goal, as visible wavelengths are ten times shorter than infrared waves, with precision requirements rising at the same rate. Michael Degel is optimistic: “We are well prepared with a solid application for federal funding.”