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Unlocking the Potential: Optical Metasurfaces Becoming Multifunctional and Tunable


In the realm of optical engineering, the evolution of metasurfaces has been nothing short of revolutionary. These ultra-thin, two-dimensional structures composed of subwavelength nanostructures have opened up a world of possibilities in manipulating light in unprecedented ways. Initially developed for single-function applications, optical metasurfaces have now taken a giant leap forward, evolving into multifunctional and tunable devices that promise to reshape the landscape of photonics and optics. In this article, we will explore the fascinating journey of optical metasurfaces as they transition from single-purpose tools to versatile and adaptable platforms.


Metamaterials, artificial materials engineered with subwavelength nanostructures, have captivated the imagination of scientists and engineers for their ability to manipulate physical phenomena like light, electromagnetic waves, sound waves, and seismic waves in ways previously thought impossible in the natural world. These micro- and nano-structured wonders hold the promise of bending seismic waves to protect buildings, redirecting tsunami waves around towns, and creating soundproof rooms by bending sound waves.

However, despite their revolutionary impact on optics, metamaterials face challenges in achieving broadband functionality, particularly across the entire visible spectrum, and their practicality is hindered by the complexity and losses associated with their intricate multilayered structures, often composed of metallic elements.

Many metamaterials require complex, multilayered structures that come with inherent challenges. These structures are often composed of intricate metallic wires and other elements that demand advanced fabrication technologies and present difficulties in assembly. While these structures can achieve unusual optical effects, their 3D nature and high resonance losses limit their practical applications.

Metasurfaces, the two-dimensional counterpart of metamaterials, represent a breakthrough in simplifying and expanding the potential of artificial materials. Comprising ultra-thin surfaces with subwavelength optical nanoantennas, each designed for specific interactions with light, metasurfaces can be static or dynamic in their modulation of phase or amplitude. Arrays of these elements enable a range of optical functions, from focusing and steering to precise wavefront manipulation.

The Genesis of Optical Metasurfaces

Before delving into the multifunctional and tunable aspects of optical metasurfaces, it’s essential to understand their origins. Conventional optical components, such as lenses and prisms, are bulky and rely on the shape and material properties for their optical functions. Metasurfaces, on the other hand, rely on subwavelength nanostructures to manipulate the phase, amplitude, and polarization of light.

Metasurfaces employ regularly spaced nanoparticles to modulate electromagnetic waves at sub-micrometer wavelength scales. This capability allows them to permit or block electromagnetic wave propagation, concentrate waves, and control light scattering with remarkable precision. Metasurfaces facilitate efficient beam steering, local polarization control, and enhanced light emission and detection.

Metasurfaces offer several advantages over traditional metamaterials and conventional optical technologies. These include their cost-effectiveness, low absorption compared to bulky metamaterials, and ease of integration due to their slim profile. Metasurfaces can be manufactured using standard lithographic techniques widely used in the semiconductor industry, further enhancing their practicality.

Passive and Active Metasurfaces

Passive metasurfaces are engineered structures composed of subwavelength nanoantennas designed to manipulate light and other electromagnetic waves without the need for external energy sources. These metasurfaces achieve their optical functionalities, such as beam steering, polarization control, and wavefront shaping, through their fixed nanostructure configurations. While they offer precise control over light, their functionalities are typically predefined during fabrication and cannot be dynamically adjusted or tuned in real-time.

For instance, meta-holograms can only generate a limited number of images under specific polarized incidences, and ultrathin beam deflectors with metasurfaces can only operate at a certain planned angle. To overcome these constraints of functionalities, new types of nanophotonic devices called active metasurfaces, the combination of passive metasurfaces and active optical materials, have been demonstrated in recent years.

In contrast, active metasurfaces combine passive metasurface structures with active materials, enabling dynamic control over their optical properties in response to external stimuli such as electrical, optical, or thermal signals. This ability to actively adjust phase, amplitude, or polarization makes active metasurfaces highly versatile and adaptable, opening up a wide range of applications, including sensors, tunable lenses, and data storage devices. Active metasurfaces hold great promise in revolutionizing optical technology by providing real-time flexibility and responsiveness to changing environmental conditions or user requirements.

Multifunctionality: A Paradigm Shift

These nanostructures can be precisely engineered to control light in various ways, from focusing it to bending it, polarizing it, or even cloaking objects from view. Initially, optical metasurfaces were designed for specific tasks, such as focusing light or generating holographic images. However, researchers soon realized that by carefully designing and arranging these nanostructures, metasurfaces could serve multiple functions and even adapt to changing conditions.

Researchers have pushed the boundaries of metasurface design, creating structures that can perform a wide range of optical tasks simultaneously.

Researchers have pursued two approaches to designing multifunctional metasurfaces. One approach involves merging individually designed metasurfaces with different functions in segmented or interleaved configurations. This approach leverages parameters such as polarization, wavelength, and angle of incidence to multiplex functions like holography, structural color generation, and beam steering.

Nevertheless, the multifunctional meta devices based on segmented and interleaved metasurfaces will still be severely affected by functional crosstalk. Besides, the extremely low operational efficiency (approximately limited to 1/N, where N is the number of functions) will seriously restrict their practical application.

The second approach integrates multiple similar or distinct functions into a single metasurface structure, akin to multiplexing in telecommunications. Non-interleaved metasurfaces have been proposed to improve operational efficiency and reduce functional crosstalk. These designs include multifocus metalenses, supercell-based configurations, and the use of the Fourier transform to combine multiple functions into a single metasurface. These innovations enhance the versatility and performance of metasurfaces in various optical applications.

Here are some examples:

  1. Flat Optics: Metasurfaces have enabled the development of flat, lightweight optical components that can replace bulky lenses and prisms. A single metasurface can simultaneously focus, deflect, and manipulate light in various ways, making them ideal for compact imaging systems and virtual reality displays.
  2. Holography: Metasurfaces have revolutionized holography by creating multifunctional holograms. These holograms can project 3D images, change colors, and even switch between different holographic scenes, offering tremendous potential in entertainment, medical imaging, and education.
  3. Polarization Control: Optical metasurfaces can manipulate the polarization of light with high precision. This capability finds applications in polarization-sensitive imaging, optical communication, and advanced microscopy techniques.
  4. Chromatic Dispersion Control: Tunable metasurfaces can control the dispersion of light, allowing for the manipulation of different wavelengths independently. This can be utilized in spectrometers, wavelength multiplexers, and broadband imaging systems.

Tunability: Adapting to Changing Environments

In addition to their multifunctionality, optical metasurfaces have become increasingly tunable. This means that these devices can adapt their optical properties in real-time or in response to external stimuli, making them incredibly versatile.

Metasurface tunability is achieved by combining static metasurfaces with active materials, allowing for control of the optical response by altering the effective permittivity of the active material through external stimuli. With enhanced device performance and functionalities, a wide range of applications of active metamaterials such as sensors, data storages, and tunable lenses have been demonstrated.

Different materials respond to various stimuli, such as temperature, electrical, or optical signals, making material selection critical for designing tunable metasurfaces. For example, vanadium dioxide (VO2) can easily switch between insulator and metal by controlling the temperature, so thermal-controlled VO2-based metasurfaces are the most prevalent.

Researchers have conducted extensive studies on the development of dynamically tunable optical responses using active electro-optic materials like transparent conducting oxides (TCOs), graphene, and heavily doped semiconductors. TCOs, in particular, are renowned for their effectiveness in near-infrared (NIR) plasmonics due to their unique properties, enabling the modulation of amplitude, phase, or polarization within the NIR spectrum using TCO-based metasurfaces.

Here’s how tunability is transforming optical metasurfaces:

  1. Active Tuning: Researchers have developed metasurfaces that can actively change their properties using external factors like electrical or magnetic fields. This tunability is valuable in applications such as adaptive optics, beam steering, and dynamic lensing.
  2. Temperature Sensitivity: Some metasurfaces exhibit temperature-dependent optical responses. By controlling the temperature, researchers can tune the metasurface to achieve specific optical functions, opening doors to applications in thermal imaging and sensing.
  3. Optomechanical Tuning: Mechanical deformation or strain can alter the nanostructures on a metasurface, leading to changes in its optical behavior. This principle is utilized in metasurface-based sensors, switching devices, and tunable lenses.

Recent Breakthroughs

In August 2021, researchers at Harvard’s SEAS achieved a significant breakthrough in laser control using a single metasurface. This metasurface system effectively tunes various laser properties, including wavelength, without requiring additional optical components. It achieves this by splitting light into multiple beams and precisely controlling their shape and intensity in an independent and power-efficient manner.

The innovative system comprises a laser diode and a reflective metasurface, as opposed to traditional setups that rely on complex networks of individual pillars for light control. This metasurface utilizes “supercells,” groups of pillars working in tandem to govern different aspects of light. By adjusting the metasurface’s position relative to the laser diode, the wavelength of the laser can be easily modified.

This advancement has significant implications for various applications, from quantum sensing to virtual and augmented reality, by enabling more lightweight and efficient optical systems. It empowers the generation of multiple parallel laser beams directed at different angles, each serving a distinct function, and opens new possibilities for engineering optical sources and controlling multiple functions simultaneously within a single metasurface.

Quantum Breakthrough: How a Multifunctional Metalens is Transforming Photonics

Metasurfaces have transformed the landscape of photonic design. It has led to major technological advances from optical imaging and holography to LiDAR and molecular sensing. In a recent quantum breakthrough reported in August 2023, scientists have unveiled a groundbreaking application of metasurfaces in photonics. This development introduces a multifunctional metalens capable of precisely structuring quantum emissions from single photon emitters (SPEs). The significance of this innovation lies in its potential to revolutionize quantum technology, with far-reaching implications for fields like cryptography and information security.

Traditionally, the collection of photons from SPEs involved intricate optical setups, but these systems lacked the ability to effectively manipulate quantum emissions. To overcome this limitation, a team of international scientists led by Drs. Chi Li and Haoran Ren from Monash University engineered a multifunctional metalens. This metalens possesses the unique capability to transform the directionality, polarization, and orbital angular momentum of quantum emissions from SPEs. This transformative technology not only opens doors to high-dimensional quantum sources but also sheds light on the exciting realm of quantum information science. Furthermore, it has the potential to enhance quantum networks by offering improved security and information capacity.

Future Prospects and Applications

The transformation of optical metasurfaces into multifunctional and tunable platforms holds great promise across various fields. These versatile devices are poised to impact industries such as telecommunications, healthcare, automotive technology, and augmented/virtual reality. Some potential applications include:

  • Smartphones with Advanced Imaging: Metasurface-based cameras that offer zooming, focusing, and depth-sensing in a compact form factor.
  • Enhanced Lidar Systems: Tunable metasurfaces for lidar applications, enabling precise distance measurements and obstacle detection.
  • Biomedical Imaging: Multifunctional metasurfaces for high-resolution, real-time imaging in medical diagnostics and surgery.
  • Next-Gen Displays: Holographic displays with adaptable functionalities, delivering immersive experiences.

Metasurfaces represent a promising avenue for the development of compact, efficient, and multifunctional optical devices and systems. Recent breakthroughs include tunable lasers that harness metasurfaces to control properties like wavelength without the need for additional optical components. These innovations hold potential across diverse fields, from quantum sensing to augmented reality, revolutionizing the way we interact with light.


Metamaterials and their two-dimensional counterparts, metasurfaces, are rewriting the rulebook of wave and light manipulation. The journey of optical metasurfaces from single-function tools to multifunctional and tunable platforms has unlocked a new era in optical engineering. These ultrathin, versatile devices are redefining the boundaries of what is possible in manipulating light.

While challenges remain, such as achieving broadband functionality and refining fabrication techniques, the promise they hold for controlling light and waves in unprecedented ways is undeniable.  With ongoing research and development, we can expect even more groundbreaking applications and innovations, solidifying optical metasurfaces as a cornerstone of future optical technologies. As they continue to evolve, the multifunctional and tunable capabilities of optical metasurfaces promise to reshape industries and bring us closer to the science fiction visions of tomorrow.






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