Materials such as paper, paint and biological tissue are opaque because the light that passes through them is scattered in complicated and seemingly random ways.
But a new experiment conducted by researchers at the City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution (ESPCI) has shown that it is possible to focus light through opaque materials and detect objects hidden behind them, provided enough is known about the material.
To demonstrate their approach to characterise opaque substances, the researchers first passed light through a layer of zinc oxide, which is a common component of white paints. By studying the way the light beam changed as it encountered the material, they were able to produce a numerical model called a transmission matrix, which describes the way that the zinc-oxide layer affected light.
They could then use the matrix to tailor a beam of light specifically to pass through the layer and focus on the other side. Alternatively, they could measure the light emerging from the opaque material and use the matrix to assemble of an image of an object behind it.
In effect, the experiment shows that an opaque material could serve as a high-quality optical element comparable to a conventional lens, once a sufficiently detailed transmission matrix is constructed.
In addition to allowing researchers to peer through paper or paint and into cells, the technique opens up the possibility that opaque materials might be good optical elements in nano-scale devices, at levels where the construction of transparent lenses and other components is particularly challenging.