First-order lighthouse Fresnel lens, on display at the Point Arena Lighthouse Museum, Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino County, California.

A Fresnel lens (pronounced /frˈnɛl/ fray-NEL or /ˈfrɛznəl/ FREZ-nel) is a type of compact lens originally developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel for lighthouses.[1]

The design allows the construction of lenses of large aperture and short focal length without the mass and volume of material that would be required by a lens of conventional design. A Fresnel lens can be made much thinner than a comparable conventional lens, in some cases taking the form of a flat sheet. A Fresnel lens can capture more oblique light from a light source, thus allowing the light from a lighthouse equipped with one to be visible over greater distances.


The idea of creating a thinner, lighter lens by making it with separate sections mounted in a frame is often attributed to Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.[2] The marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) proposed grinding such a lens from a single thin piece of glass.[3] French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel is most often given credit for the development of the multi-part lens for use in lighthouses. According to Smithsonian magazine, the first Fresnel lens was used in 1823 in the Cordouan lighthouse at the mouth of the Gironde estuary; its light could be seen from more than 20 miles (32 km) out.[4] Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster is credited with convincing the United Kingdom to adopt these lenses in their lighthouses.[5][6]




How a spherical Fresnel lens focuses light
How a spherical Fresnel lens focuses light
1 Cross section of a spherical Fresnel len, 2 Cross section of a conventional spherical lens
1: Cross section of a spherical Fresnel lens
2: Cross section of a conventional spherical plano-convex lens of equivalent power
Close-up view of a flat Fresnel lens shows concentric circles on the surface

The Fresnel lens reduces the amount of material required compared to a conventional lens by dividing the lens into a set of concentric annular sections. An ideal Fresnel lens would have infinitely many such sections. In each section, the overall thickness is decreased compared to an equivalent simple lens. This effectively divides the continuous surface of a standard lens into a set of surfaces of the same curvature, with stepwise discontinuities between them.

In some lenses, the curved surfaces are replaced with flat surfaces, with different angle in each section. Such a lens can be regarded as an array of prisms arranged in a circular fashion, with steeper prisms on the edges, and a flat or slightly convex center. In the first (and largest) Fresnel lenses, each section was actually a separate prism. 'Single-piece' Fresnel lenses were later produced, being used for automobile headlamps, brake, parking, and turn signal lenses, and so on. In modern times, computer-controlled milling equipment (CNC) might be used to manufacture more complex lenses.

Fresnel lens design allows a substantial reduction in thickness (and thus mass and volume of material), at the expense of reducing the imaging quality of the lens, which is why precise imaging applications such as photography still use conventional bulky lenses.

Fresnel lenses are usually made of glass or plastic; their size varies from large (old historical lighthouses, meter size) to medium (book-reading aids, OHP viewgraph projectors) to small (TLR/SLR camera screens, micro-optics). In many cases they are very thin and flat, almost flexible, with thicknesses in the 1 to 5 mm (0.039 to 0.20 in) range.

Lighthouse lens sizes


Cape Meares Lighthouse; first-order Fresnel lens

Fresnel produced six sizes of lighthouse lenses, divided into four orders based on their size and focal length.[7] In modern use, these are classified as first through sixth order. An intermediate size between third and fourth order was added later, as well as sizes above first order and below sixth.

A first-order lens has a focal length of 920 mm (36 in) and an optical area 2590 mm (8.5 ft) high. The complete assembly is about 3.7 m (12 ft) tall and 1.8 m (6 ft) wide. The smallest (sixth-order) has a focal length of 150 mm (5.9 in) and an optical area 433 mm (17 in) high.[7][8][9]

The largest Fresnel lenses are called hyperradiant Fresnel lenses. One such lens was on hand when it was decided to build and outfit the Makapuu Point Light in Hawaii. Rather than order a new lens, the huge optic construction, 3.7 metres (12 ft) tall and with over a thousand prisms, was used there.[10]

Lighthouse lens orders
Order Focal length 
First installed
Sixth 150 0.433  
Fifth 182.5 0.541  
Fourth 250 0.722  
3 12 375    
Third 500 1.576  
Second 750 2.069  
First 920 2.59  
Hyperradial 1330   1879


Spherical and cylindrical Fresnel lenses use curved segments, and produce sharp images, while spot and linear Fresnel lenses use flat segments, and do not produce sharp images. As the number of segments increases, spot and spherical lenses become more similar to one another, as do cylindrical and linear lenses. In theory, with an infinite number of segments, the difference between curved and flat segments disappears.


A spherical Fresnel lens is equivalent to a normal spherical lens, using multiple spherical arcs, thus focusing light on a single point. This type produces a sharp image, although not quite as clear as the equivalent circular lens, due to diffraction at the edges of the ridges.


A cylindrical Fresnel lens is equivalent to a normal cylindrical lens, using multiple cylindrical arcs, thus focusing light on a single line. This type produces a sharp image, although not quite as clear as the equivalent cylindrical lens, due to diffraction at the edges of the ridges.


A spot Fresnel uses multiple flat segments, arranged in a circle, thus focusing light on a small spot. This type does not produce a sharp image, but has application in solar power, such as focusing sunlight on a solar panel.


A linear Fresnel lens uses multiple flat segments, arranged linearly, thus focusing light on a narrow band. This type does not produce a sharp image, but has application in solar power, such as focusing sunlight on a pipe, to heat the water within: [1].


A plastic Fresnel lens sold as a TV-screen enlarging device

The use of Fresnel lenses for image projection reduces image quality, so they tend to occur only where quality is not critical or where the bulk of a solid lens would be prohibitive. Cheap Fresnel lenses can be stamped or molded of transparent plastic and are used in overhead projectors, projection televisions, and hand-held sheet magnifying glasses. Fresnel lenses have been used to increase the visual size of CRT displays in pocket televisions, notably the Sinclair TV80. They are also used in traffic lights. Fresnel lenses are also used to correct several visual disorders, including several ocular-motility disorders such as strabismus.

Since plastic Fresnel lenses can be made larger than glass lenses, as well as being much cheaper and lighter, they are used to concentrate sunlight for heating in solar cookers, in solar forges, and in solar collectors used to heat water for domestic use.

Perhaps the most widespread use of Fresnel lenses, for a time, occurred in automobile headlamps, where they can shape the roughly parallel beam from the parabolic reflector to meet requirements for dipped and main-beam patterns, often both in the same headlamp unit (such as the European H4 design). For reasons of cost, weight, and impact resistance, newer cars have dispensed with glass Fresnel lenses, using multifaceted reflectors with plain polycarbonate lenses. However, Fresnel lenses continue in wide used in automobile tail, marker, and backup lights.

Fresnel lenses are also used in left-hand-drive European lorries entering the UK and Republic of Ireland (and vice versa, right-hand-drive Irish and British trucks entering mainland Europe) to overcome the blind spots caused by the driver operating the lorry while sitting on the wrong side of the cab relative to the side of the road the car is on. They attach to the passenger-side window.

Another automobile application of a Fresnel lens is a rear view enhancer, as the wide view angle of a lens attached to the rear window permits examining the scene behind a vehicle, particularly a tall or bluff-tailed one, more effectively than a rear-view mirror alone.

High-quality glass Fresnel lenses were used in lighthouses, where they were considered state of the art in the late 19th and through the middle of the 20th centuries; most are now retired from service.[11] Lighthouse Fresnel lens systems typically include extra annular prismatic elements, arrayed in faceted domes above and below the central planar Fresnel, in order to catch all light emitted from the light source. The light path through these elements can include an internal reflection, rather than the simple refraction in the planar Fresnel element. These lenses conferred many practical benefits upon the designers, builders, and users of lighthouses and their illumination. Among other things, smaller lenses could fit into more compact spaces. Greater light transmission over longer distances, and varied patterns, made it possible to triangulate a position.[12]

Glass Fresnel lenses also are used in lighting instruments for theatre and motion pictures (see Fresnel lantern); such instruments are often called simply Fresnels. The entire instrument consists of a metal housing, a reflector, a lamp assembly, and a Fresnel lens. Many Fresnel instruments allow the lamp to be moved relative to the lens' focal point, to increase or decrease the size of the light beam. As a result, they are very flexible, and can often produce a beam as narrow as 7° or as wide as 70°.[13] The Fresnel lens produces a very soft-edged beam, so is often used as a wash light. A holder in front of the lens can hold a colored plastic film (gel) to tint the light or wire screens or frosted plastic to diffuse it. The Fresnel lens is useful in the making of motion pictures not only because of its ability to focus the beam brighter than a typical lens, but also because the light is a relatively consistent intensity across the entire width of the beam of light.

Optical Landing System on US Navy aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower

Aircraft carriers and naval air stations typically use Fresnel lenses in their optical landing systems. The "meatball" light aids the pilot in maintaining proper glide slope for the landing. In the center are amber and red lights composed of Fresnel lenses. Although the lights are always on, the angle of the lens from the pilot's point of view determines the color and position of the visible light. If the lights appear above the green horizontal bar, the pilot is too high. If it is below, the pilot is too low, and if the lights are red, the pilot is very low.

New applications have appeared in solar energy, where Fresnel lenses can concentrate sunlight (with a ratio of almost 500:1) onto solar cells. Thus the active solar-cell surface can be reduced to a fraction compared to conventional solar modules. This offers a considerable cost-saving potential by low material consumption, and it is possible to use high-quality and expensive solar cells, which achieve a very high efficiency under concentration due to thermodynamic effects.[14]

Fresnel reflectors are also currently being incorporated into next-generation solar thermal-energy systems. See solar power for more information.

In photography, the Polaroid SX-70 camera used a Fresnel reflector as part of its viewing system.

Multi-focal Fresnel lenses are also used as a part of retina identification cameras, where they provide multiple in- and out-of-focus images of a fixation target inside the camera. For virtually all users, at least one of the images will be in focus, thus allowing correct eye alignment.

The Fresnel lens has seen applications for enhancing passenger reading lights on Airbus aircraft: in a dark cabin, the focused beam of light does not dazzle neighboring passengers.

Fresnel lenses have also been used in the field of popular entertainment. The British rock artist Peter Gabriel made use of them in his early solo live performances to magnify the size of his head, in contrast to the rest of his body, for dramatic and comic effect. In the Terry Gilliam film Brazil, plastic Fresnel screens appear ostensibly as magnifiers for the small CRT monitors used throughout the offices of the Ministry of Information. However, they occasionally appear between the actors and the camera, distorting the scale and composition of the scene to humorous effect.


Fresnel lenses of different focal lengths (one collimator, and one collector) are used in commercial and DIY projection. The collimator lens has the lower focal length and is placed closer to the light source, and the collector lens, which focuses the light into the triplet lens, is placed after the projection image (an active matrix LCD panel in LCD projectors). Fresnel lenses are also used as collimators in overhead projectors.

Solar power

In the early 21st century, Fresnel reflectors began to be used in concentrating solar power (CSP) plants to concentrate solar energy. One application was to preheat water at the coal-fired Liddell Power Station, in Hunter Valley Australia.

Other applications include off-grid cooking, melting metals, generating solar steam and powering Stirling engines.

See also


  1. ^ "Fresnel lens". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved March 19, 2013. 
  2. ^ "Fresnel lens". Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc). 2012. Retrieved 5 July 2012. 
  3. ^ D. Appleton and Co. (1874). "Fresnel lens". Appleton's dictionary of machines, mechanics, engine-work, and engineering (New York: D. Appleton and Co) 2: 609. Retrieved July 5, 2012. 
  4. ^ Watson, Bruce. "Science Makes a Better Lighthouse Lens." Smithsonian. August 1999 v30 i5 p30. produced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005.
  5. ^ "Brewster, Sir David." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 November 2005.
  6. ^ "David Brewster." World of Invention, 2nd ed. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005.
  7. ^ a b Mabel A. Baiges (1988). "Fresnel Orders" (TIFF). Retrieved September 9, 2012. 
  8. ^ "Fresnel lenses". Retrieved June 1, 2007.  Note the transcription error in the "Comparative Table of Lens Orders; the "oil consumption per hour" columns should be titled grams and ounces, not gallons.[dead link]
  9. ^ "Fresnel lenses". Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy. January 31, 2008. Retrieved September 9, 2012. 
  10. ^ "Makapu`u, HI". Anderson, Kraig. Lighthouse Friends. Retrieved February 26, 2009. 
  11. ^ Terry Pepper, Seeing the Light, The Incredible Fresnel Lens.
  12. ^ Terry Pepper, Seeing the Light, Fresnel lens.
  13. ^ Mum, Robert C., Photometrics Handbook. Broadway Press. 2nd Edition. Page 36.
  14. ^ "Concentrix Solar". Retrieved 2008-05-06. 

A Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR) is in use at Lidell Power Station Hunter Valley Australia

Further reading

External links