A decade ago, the Vancouver Art Gallery hosted "Massive Change," curated by Bruce Mau and the Institute without Boundaries. The ambitious exhibition celebrated an array of positive socio-environmental benefits made possible by new technologies and design approaches. One of the most memorable rooms was a white space in which every surface was covered in images. Entitled “Image Economies,” this portion of the exhibit highlighted the capability of imaging technologies to capture information invisible to the naked eye.

Although the ultrasound and scanning tunneling microscope images on display were compelling, a recent achievement in microscopic imaging seems to defy scientific logic altogether. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) announced the development of a nano-scaled photographic film that can capture images at distances shorter than the wavelength of light. The plasmonic film is actually a collection glass pillar–based bow-tie nanoantennas (pBNAs) that are made of gold and, as the name suggests, emulate a bow-tie shape. Together with a conventional optical microscope, these nanoantennas can be used like traditional photographic film to capture information at distances of less than 600 nanometers, or the wavelength of visible light.

The researchers recorded UIUC's “I” logo using the plasmonic film. Each bar in the letter measures approximately 6 micrometers.

The researchers recorded UIUC's “I” logo using the plasmonic film. Each bar in the letter measures approximately 6 micrometers.

Credit: Kimani Toussaint

"Unlike conventional photographic film, the effect ... is seen in real time,” said research lead Kimani Toussaint, an associate professor of mechanical science and engineering at UIUC, in a press release. "We have demonstrated that this multifunctional plasmonic film can be used to create optofluidic channels without walls. Because simple diode lasers and low-input power densities are sufficient to record near-field optical information in the pBNAs, this increases the potential for optical data storage applications using off-the-shelf, low-cost, read-write laser systems.”

The researchers propose using the technology to record information at a higher resolution than what current is currently offered. "For a standard Blu-ray or DVD disc size, that amounts to a total of 28.6 gigabytes per disk,” said Brian Roxworthy, first author of the related paper and now a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "With modifications to array spacing and antenna features, it’s feasible that this value can be scaled to greater than 75 gigabytes per disk. Not to mention, it can be used for other exciting photonic applications, such as lab-on-chip nanotweezers or sensing.”

As Mau stated in Massive Change, “Now life in all its glorious complexity, from the dynamic division of cells to the vastness of the entire universe in all of its pulsing vibrancy, has been rendered accessible to our visual capacity.” Yet as the UIUC researchers’ findings demonstrate, science continues to find new ways to make visible even more of the invisible universe.

Watch the nano-scale camera at work:

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.