Protruding camera bumps like on the iPhone 11 Pro Max could soon be a thing of the past.

Smartphone cameras have been improved a lot over recent years and while many improvements are down to software and image processing, hardware also plays a big part. Sensor sizes have been increased, lenses have become faster and optical tele lenses offer better zoom performance.

However, there's also a drawback to these developments. Due to the laws of physics, faster and longer lenses, especially when combined with larger sensors, take up more space in a device. Combined with the device designers' obsession with ultra-thin bodies this resulted in many devices coming with unsightly 'camera bumps' that protrude from otherwise perfectly smooth smartphone housings.

Those bumps could soon be a thing of the past, though. A research team at the University of Utah has developed a super-thin camera lens that would easily fit even in the thinnest smartphone body.

Current lenses are, depending on lens type and sensor size of the camera, a few millimeters thick. The new lens type is only a few microns thick, that's about a thousand times thinner than current smartphone lenses. They are also one hundred times lighter.

Flat lens developed by researchers at the University of Utah, photo: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

The method the researchers have used to make this possible has been detailed in a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The new lenses are flat and consist of a large number of microstructures, each bending the light towards the sensor rather than just one single piece. As part of the project the team also developed a fabrication process using a new type of polymer and algorithms than can calculate the exact geometry required for these microstructures.

'You can think of these microstructures as very small pixels of a lens,' says Rajesh Menon, one of the co-authors of the project, 'They’re not a lens by themselves but all working together to act as a lens.'

According to the scientists, the new lens type could also help give smartphones thermal imaging capabilities as well as design more lightweight military drones that could fly longer and lighter night vision cameras for soldiers in the field.