The Next Wave in High Tech Materials Science

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Optical Profilometer Metamaterials, Image by Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Metamaterials are not something used by the United Federation of Planets’ engineers to build the next iteration of the Starship Enterprise (which, btw, would be designated the NCC-1701-F, although some may differ).  Rather, they are materials fabricated in such a manner that they can bend light, sound, radar, radio and seismic waves. The technological implication of applying these materials in antennas, radar, cosmetics and soundproofing may prove to be transformative according to a fascinating article in the March 23, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled The Waves of the Future May Bend Around Metamaterials, by John Markoff.  I will summarize this, add some links and annotations, and pose some questions.

These substances achieve their remarkable effect by being composed of microscopic “subcomponents” that are smaller than the wavelengths of the types of waves they are engineered to bend in certain ways. That is, they can be used to “manipulate” the waves in designated manners “that do not normally occur”.

Researchers have been developing a variety of metamaterials for the past 15 years. Their work has recently begun yielding some genuine innovations in systems that incorporate these advances in original and innovative ways. Some of these latest developments include:

  • Airbus*and Lamda Guard are about to test a coating on airline windows to deter attempts to blind them with laser pointing devices by someone on the ground. (See NYC Man Charged With Pointing Laser at Aircraft, in the March 15, 2015 edition of The New York Times for a recent case of this here in New York.)
  • Echodyne is working on several types of antennas, radar-based navigation systems and other devices.
  • Evolv Technology is developing airport security systems.
  • Kymeta has partnered with Intelsat to engineer “land-based and satellite-based intelligent antennas”.
  • Dr. Xiang Zhang at the University of California at Berkeley, is working on, among other metamaterials projects, “superlenses” for microscopes that might increase their magnification powers beyond today’s capabilities. He has received inquiries from “military contractors and commercial companies” and even cosmetics companies concerning metamaterials. As well, he and other developers are creating apps for optical computer networks.
  • Professor Vinod Menon and his research team at the City College of New York, in their Laboratory for Nano and Micro Photonics, have demo-ed “light emission from ultrafast-switching LEDs” made from metamaterials. Using this and other related developments may also lead to significantly faster optical computers networks.
  • Menard Construction published a paper in 2013 entitled Seismic Metamaterial: How to Shake Friends and Influence Waves? by S. Brûlé, E.H. Javelaud, S. Enoch and S. Guenneau, where the company successfully tested “a metamaterial grid of empty cylindrical columns bored into soil” in an effort to reduce the effects of a “simulated earthquake”. (The phases in quotes in the last sentence were from the NYTimes article, not the research paper itself.)

The article concludes on a note of great optimism from Professor Zhang about the future of metamaterials. I completely agree. Once these apps and development projects make their way into commercial markets and other scientists and companies from different fields and industries take greater notice, I strongly believe that new forms of metamaterials and their applications will emerge that have not even been imagined yet. Like any dramatically new technology, this will find its applications perhaps in some very unlikely and surprising sectors.

Just to start off, what about medical devices, optical computing and storage devices, visual displays, sound and video recording, and automotive safety technology? Let’s keep watching and see what springs from people’s needs and creativity.

Finally, just a quick mention of a recently published book that received many excellent reviews for a lively and engaging series of stories about the key developments of basic materials and materials science through history entitled Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Midownik (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

[While I hope that this blog post will be enlightening, please be assured that no light waves were bent or harmed during the drafting process.]

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Another innovative project by Airbus to develop a drone for bringing Net access to remote and under-served regions was covered in the November 26, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Robots and Diamonds and Drones, Aha! Innovations on the Horizon for 2015.

 

3 thoughts on “The Next Wave in High Tech Materials Science

  1. Pingback: Smart Dust: Specialized Computers Fabricated to Be Smaller Than a Single Grain of Rice |

  2. Pingback: Self-Healing Concrete Due to Soon Enter the Construction Market |

  3. Pingback: New Strata-Gem Produces “Q-Carbon” – A Substance Stronger and Brighter than Diamonds |

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