• Researchers at MIT have devised tiny “microlenses” from complex liquid droplets, such as these pictured here, that are comparable in size to the width of a human hair.

    Researchers at MIT have devised tiny “microlenses” from complex liquid droplets, such as these pictured here, that are comparable in size to the width of a human hair.

    Courtesy of the researchers

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Scientists make microscopes from droplets

Researchers at MIT have devised tiny “microlenses” from complex liquid droplets, such as these pictured here, that are comparable in size to the width of a human hair.

With chemistry and light, researchers can tune the focus of tiny beads of liquid.


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Liquid droplets are natural magnifiers. Look inside a single drop of water, and you are likely to see a reflection of the world around you, close up and distended as you’d see in a crystal ball.

Researchers at MIT have now devised tiny “microlenses” from complex liquid droplets comparable in size to the width of a human hair. They report the advance this week in the journal Nature Communications.

Each droplet consists of an emulsion, or combination of two liquids, one encapsulated in the other, similar to a bead of oil within a drop of water. Even in their simple form, these droplets can magnify and produce images of surrounding objects. But now the researchers can also reconfigure the properties of each droplet to adjust the way they filter and scatter light, similar to adjusting the focus on a microscope.

The scientists used a combination of chemistry and light to precisely shape the curvature of the interface between the internal bead and the surrounding droplet. This interface acts as a kind of internal lens, comparable to the compounded lens elements in microscopes.

“We have shown fluids are very versatile optically,” says Mathias Kolle, the Brit and Alex d'Arbeloff Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “We can create complex geometries that form lenses, and these lenses can be tuned optically. When you have a tunable microlens, you can dream up all sorts of applications.”