German engineers have created a tiny camera that could change the future of health imaging.
The micro-camera is no bigger than a grain of salt and can be injected into the body using a syringe, reports ABC. The tiny camera could have a massive impact on health imaging, and — perhaps more worryingly — find application in the area of clandestine surveillance.
The “imaging system” fits comfortably inside a standard syringe needle, said the team, allowing for delivery into a human organ, or even the brain.
3D printing works by depositing layer after layer of material, such as plastic or metal, to create a 3D object to precise specifications. The German engineers used 3D printing technology to create the micro-camera, but they could not use a conventional 3D printer, according to 3D Printing Industry.
Printing on such a small scale isn’t an easy task, especially as this particularly small objects can’t be created on a conventional 3D printer.
The University of Stuttgart scientists had to use a femtosecond laser, which sent pulses with durations shorter than 100 femtoseconds – one femtosecond is a quadrillionth of a second. By firing the pulses at a light-sensitive material on a glass substrate, the scientists were able to create a hard polymer material with the desired optical properties.
The researchers figured out that two photons were absorbed by the original material with each laser pulse. Every time the two photons were absorbed, the polymers within the material would crosslink. The remaining material was washed away with a solvent, leaving the engineers with a tiny “crosslinked, hard polymer material” that they could use to form the optical element.
The engineers claim that this is a new technique, and they report that higher-quality micro-lenses could be on their way soon.
Accuracy up to sub-micrometer levels [can be achieved], making it possible to print optical lens systems [with] more than two lenses. This multi-lens system will possibly allow for more colors to be seen, which in turn increases photo quality.
Applications aren’t just limited to the medical industry. The micro-camera could potentially be used in drones and smartphones, or in many products which need parts to be as small and light as possible.
The compound lens is just 100 micrometres (0.1 millimeters) wide, and 120 micrometers with its casing. It is attached to a 1.7-meter optical fibre. The lens can focus on images from a distance of 3.0mm. It then relays them over the length of the fiber to which it is attached.
Professor Harald Giessen, from the University of Stuttgart’s 4th Physics Institute, said that manufacturing the micro-cameras is quick and easy and that their technique will have an impact comparable to that of computer-aided design in mechanical engineering at the beginning of the decade.
“The time from the idea, the optics design, a CAD model, to the finished, 3D-printed micro-objectives is going to be less than a day. We are going to open potentials just like computer-aided design and computer-integrated manufacturing did in mechanical engineering a few years ago.”
The technology could also be deployed in security monitors, in the form of mini-robots with “autonomous vision.” The security robots would be “almost invisible,” reports ABC.
The researchers reported on their discovery in the journal Nature Photonics. They outlined how the technology could be used to create minimally-intrusive endoscopes for exploring inside the human body.
“Endoscopic applications will allow for non-invasive and non-destructive examination of small objects in the medical, as well as the industrial, sector.”
[Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images]