Fans of Star Trek are familiar with the replicator, a machine that can create virtually anything – instantly. Makerbot enthusiasts will even know about a popular product line of theirs call the Replicator. Soon, this technology may find its way into your pocket.
Caltech electrical engineering professor Ali Hajimiri and his research team believe that smartphone-powered replicators are 3-5 years away. The team developed a powerful 3D imager than is small enough to fit inside of a smartphone. After successful testing, they published the results in the journal Optics.
The research team gives an exciting scenario: “Imagine you need to have an almost exact copy of an object. Now imagine that you can just pull your smartphone out of your pocket, take a snapshot with its integrated 3-D imager, send it to your 3-D printer, and within minutes you have reproduced a replica accurate to within microns of the original object.”
It’s called the nanophotonic coherent imager, or NCI. It’s only a single square millimeter, and cheap, since Hajimiri and his team were able to create it out of silicon, like most sensors. The NCI is very accurate as it makes use of LIDAR, a remote detection and sensing technique that covers the object to be scanned in lasers.
As the announcement explains, “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.”
The first concept of the NCI has 16 couplers, which means that the 3D images can only be 16 pixels large. The research team has also developed a method for imaging bigger objects by first scanning a 4×4 pixel section, and then moving the object in four pixel increments to the next section.
Hamjiri says, “The small size and high quality of this new chip-based imager will result in significant cost reductions, which will enable thousands of new uses for such systems by incorporating them into personal devices such as smartphones.”
This study was published in a paper titled, “Nanophotonic coherent imager.” In addition to Hajimiri, other Caltech coauthors include former postdoctoral scholar and current assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Firooz Aflatouni, graduate student Behrooz Abiri, and Angad Rekhi (BS ’14). This work was partially funded by Caltech Innovation Initiative.