Advances in lens technology may enable machines to focus on features smaller than the wavelength of light.

These "metamaterials" are composites that can tap into a range of magnetism scientists have not yet harnessed using naturally occurring materials.

The new composites are constructed using nanotechnology to build tiny circuits on a plate made of quartz.

The newest metamaterials respond in the terahertz frequency range which lies between infrared rays and microwave rays and can be made from elements, such as copper, or compounds which are not in themselves magnetic.

How it could work

Electromagnetic radiation has an electrical and a magnetic component.

But conventional optical lenses used in cameras, telescopes and microscopes can only to respond to just one of the two possible fields - the electrical.
 
This is because almost all materials are magnetically inert at optical frequencies.

"It's a bit like riding a bike with one hand," Professor John Pendry of Imperial College. But now scientists hope to use both fields.

But harnessing the electrical and magnetic components at optical frequencies could lead to perfect lenses with vastly better resolutions than conventional optical types.

These lenses could focus on features smaller than the wavelength of light and would be limited only by the materials they are constructed from.

Long wait?

"Theoretically if you construct the elements we've made at terahertz frequencies ... you could have perfect lensing at those frequencies"

Dr Willie Padilla,
University of California

But scientists concede that pushing these new metamaterials into these frequency ranges is still some way off, if it is in fact achievable.

Some experts in the field seriously question whether it is possible to develop materials capable of perfect lensing at optical frequencies.

"Theoretically if you construct the elements we've made at terahertz frequencies, make them even smaller and then scale them up to optical frequencies, you could have perfect lensing at those frequencies," said co-author Dr Willie Padilla of the University of California, San Diego.

"But there are theoretical limits to how these things work because you're scaling them smaller and smaller.

"Once you get to the point where this material is just a few atoms thick, it's not even clear how that material is going to behave."

Applications

More immediately, the terahertz technology will open up a range of new applications.

"Images taken using terahertz rays have good contrast between similar density objects," explained co-author Willie Padilla.

"So when building aircraft, terahertz scanners could be used to image aircraft components, even if the components were of similar densities.

"Also, terahertz is useful for medical imaging and has the advantage that it is much less damaging than X-rays, because it consists of non-ionizing radiation."

The composites are also likely to see applications in enhancing the storage capacity of CDs and DVDs and in increasing the number of circuits that can fit on computer chips.