“The things we are researching today will be standard in about ten to fifteen years’ time”

Giampiero Gerini is Senior Scientist in the Optics department. As far as he is concerned, research is always a combination of ground-breaking innovation and application driven research.

“I find the latest developments in the field of non-conventional optics particularly fascinating. For instance, I am very excited about the potential of nano-engineered metasurfaces. These are extremely thin membranes of engineered materials with sub-wavelength “nanoscale scattering elements”. These nano-scatterers can introduce very abrupt changes to the properties of light. This enables us to manipulate light in every possible way, with much thinner components than those used in conventional optics. This technology enables us to develop optical systems that are extremely versatile, yet take up very little space.”

The secret of metasurfaces

“Metasurfaces are part of the recently introduced technology concept of Nanoarchitectronics which comes from the merger of three key terms: “nano”, “architecture” and “electronics”. This is a new technology which aims at developing reconfigurable, adaptive and cognitive sensorial surfaces and functional “skins”. Such skins are implemented assembling building blocks, at nanoscale, in hierarchical architectures. The ultimate goal of Nanoarchitectronics is to create sensorial interfaces between a subject (person or system) and the environment. Metasurfaces can actually be used to develop innovative, miniaturized, sensing, imaging and communication systems. In a visionary future, these interfaces will cognitively evolve their functionalities to maximize connections and monitoring/sensing capabilities. Just to give a few examples, metasurfaces can be used to develop tools for testing soil, to see whether it is suitable for farming purposes. You can use them to monitor environmental pollution or for enhanced imaging in medical diagnostics instruments You can also use this technology for defence and security purposes to enable miniaturized devices to detect, for example explosives.”

Expert in space technology

“You can use metasurfaces also to create novel instruments for space applications that can be hosted on board of cubesats (miniaturized satellites for space research made up of multiples of 10×10×10 cm cubic units). We have also developed a metasurface that is capable of totally absorbing any light that hits it. This can be used for various purposes such as building instruments that are ultra-sensitive to light, or testing the performance of spectroscopic instruments. This innovative technology development goes hand in hand with TNO’s unequalled expertise in space, which has earned it a worldwide reputation. TNO has developed various highly advanced instruments, such as imaging spectrometers currently flying in space, which are frequently used by scientists seeking fundamental insights into the state of our atmosphere and into climate change.”

Optical metrology systems for the semiconductor industry

“We put these optical principles to good use, also for the development of advanced metrology instruments for semiconductor industry. Nano patterned surfaces (e.g. array of nano-antennas) can be used for the realization of novel near-field imaging sensors. Such sensors would be able to resolve the smaller and smaller features that the semiconductor industry is aiming for. Not so long ago, I also started researching the potential of X-rays in metrology. X-rays are electromagnetic waves that have a much shorter wavelength than visible light, allowing you to detect and recognize even smaller particles. The semiconductor industry is very much interested in the optical metrology systems we are currently developing.”

Eternally curious

“In addition to my position at TNO, I hold a professorship at Eindhoven University of Technology. There too, together with my students, I am searching for new ways to manipulate light. At the University, I have more freedom for long term and fundamental research, often driven by curiosity and less so by short term demands for specific technological solutions – pretty much the opposite of the set-up at TNO. Yet, as a Senior Scientist at TNO, I still have plenty of scope to do ‘blue sky’ research. That is absolutely vital, otherwise you’ll never discover anything new and ground-breaking. Thanks to the potential of metasurfaces, future generations of instruments will see the light of day, instruments with capabilities of which we – as yet – know nothing.”

Expertise

Optics

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