Machines that can grind ultra-precise optics into shapes once considered prohibitively expensive are now a reality, thanks to researchers at the University of Rochester's Center for Optics Manufacturing (COM). Until the creation of the new machines, called conformal grinders, ultra-precise optics had to be ground to a spherical shape that severely limited where the glass could be used. Airplane sensors, for instance, might work best in a wing, but have traditionally been placed in the fuselage because the glass dome that houses them does not conform to the shape of a wing. A conformal grinder, however, can cut glass to match the wing's contours.
Working with Raytheon, Boeing, Rochester Photonics Corp., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and others, the researchers at COM designed a computer-controlled grinder that is the first ever capable of producing precision optical components of almost any shape-not only for aircraft, but for surgical endoscopes that see beneath the skin, components of NASA's space plane, or any commercial application that might demand a sleek new shape that couldn't be manufactured in the past. The prototype machine was constructed by Nanotechnology Systems of Keene, N.H., and is now undergoing testing at the Rochester center.
"Usually optics have spherical shapes that don't fit the curve of what they're mounted to," explains Harvey Pollicove, director of COM. "You always end up with a bulge in the fuselage where sensors are housed. The new shapes will give engineers remarkable freedom to design-which they'll exploit in no time. Look at what happened with car headlights. Once a way was found to design headlights that conformed to a car body's shape, auto designers made headlights in every shape imaginable. Now that we've removed the shape restrictions on highly accurate optics, who knows what we'll build with them down the road?"
Along with the original machine being tested at COM, Germany's University of Bremen and the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology have ordered the grinder.