As phones, computers and other electronics have grown ever smaller, their optical components have stubbornly refused to shrink. Notably, it is hard to make tiny lenses with traditional glass-cutting and glass-curving techniques, and the elements in a glass lens often need to be stacked to focus light properly. Engineers have recently figured out much of the physics behind much smaller, lighter alternatives known as metalenses. These lenses could allow for greater miniaturization of microscopes and other laboratory tools, as well as of consumer products, such as cameras, virtual-reality headsets and optical sensors for the Internet of Things. And they could enhance the functionality of optical fibers.

A metalens consists of a flat surface, thinner than a micron, that is covered with an array of nanoscale objects, such as jutting pillars or drilled holes. As incident light hits these elements, many of its properties change—including its polarization, intensity, phase and direction of propagation. Researchers can precisely position the nanoscale objects to ensure that the light that exits the metalens has selected characteristics. What is more, metalenses are so thin that several can sit atop one another without a significant increase in size. Researchers have demonstrated optical devices such as spectrometers and polarimeters made from stacks of these flat surfaces.

In a major breakthrough last year, researchers solved a problem called chromatic aberration. As white light passes through a typical lens, rays of its varied wavelengths get deflected at different angles and thus focus at different distances from the lens; to fix this effect, engineers today need to layer lenses in a finicky alignment. Now a single metalens can focus all the wavelengths of white light onto the same spot. Beyond creating this “achromatic” metalens, scientists have developed metalenses that correct other aberrations, such as coma and astigmatism, which cause image distortions and blurring.

In addition to reducing size, metalenses should ultimately lower the cost of optical components because the diminutive lenses can be manufactured with the same equipment already used in the semiconductor industry. This feature raises the alluring prospect of fabricating, say, a tiny light sensor’s optical and electronic components side by side.

For now, however, expenses are still high because it is difficult to precisely place nanoscale elements on a centimeter-scale chip. Other limitations also need addressing. So far metalenses do not transmit light as efficiently as traditional lenses do—an important capability for such applications as full-color imaging. In addition, they are too small to capture a large quantity of light, which means that, at least for now, they are not suited to snapping high-quality photographs.

Nevertheless, in the next few years the tiny lenses will probably make their way into smaller, easier-to-manufacture sensors, diagnostic tools such as endoscopic imaging devices, and optical fibers. Those potential applications are appealing enough to have attracted research support from government agencies and such companies as Samsung and Google. At least one start-up, Metalenz, expects to bring metalenses to market within the next few years.