Electrically tunable lenses (ETLs) are polymeric or fluid-filled lenses that have a focal length that changes with an applied current. They have shown some great potential for microscopy, especially in fast, simple z-sweeps.
The above figure shows the ~120 um range of focal depths an ETL installed between the camera and a 40x objective (from reference 1). Note that this arrangement has the drawback of changing the effective magnification at different focal depths; however, this effect is fairly small (20%) and linear over the full range. For high-resolution z-stack imaging of cells, this mag change would not be ideal. But it should be correctable for imaging less sensitive to magnification changes. Basic ETLs cost only a few hundred dollars, a lot cheaper than a piezo stage or objective focuser. Optotune has a lot of information about how to add an ETL to a microscope.
Another cool application of an ETL is in light-sheet microscopy. A recent paper from Enrico Gratton (reference 2) used an ETL to sweep the narrow waist of a light sheet across the sample, and synchronize its motion to match the rolling shutter of a CMOS camera.
The main goal was to cheaply and simply create a light sheet that had a uniform (and minimal) thickness across the entire field of view. Previous low-tech methods to achieve this was to close down an iris, thus reducing the difference in thickness across the sample, but it also reduces the minimal waist size. The high-tech way to do this is creating “propagation-invariant” Bessel or Airy beams. These do not spread out as they propagate, like Gaussian beams do, but creating them and aligning them in microscopes is significantly more challenging.
Gratton’s cheap trick means one can create a flat and thin light sheet for the cost of an ETL and the complexity of synchronizing a voltage ramp signal to the CMOS rolling shutter readout. To be honest, I don’t 100% know how complicated or robust that is in practice. I’m just guessing that it’s simpler than a Bessel beam.
Wang, Z., Lei, M., Yao, B., Cai, Y., Liang, Y., Yang, Y., … Xiong, D. (2015). Compact multi-band fluorescent microscope with an electrically tunable lens for autofocusing. Biomedical Optics Express, 6(11), 4353. doi:10.1364/BOE.6.004353
Hedde, P. N., & Gratton, E. (2016). Selective plane illumination microscopy with a light sheet of uniform thickness formed by an electrically tunable lens. Microscopy Research and Technique, 00(April). doi:10.1002/jemt.22707