Metamaterials: a whole new world

We’ve written about smart materials, which are impressive as they add novel functionality to materials we know well. A newer class of materials is so stunning that they could blow the likes of smart materials out of the water. Metamaterials are literally starting to shape a whole new world.

Such materials can bend light, sound and even seismic energy – in fact, anything that travels in waves can be manipulated.

Metamaterials are extremely high-tech, but they are based on a very simple principle: they are built at a scale that is smaller than the wave-length of whatever they are manipulating.

To understand how they work, consider waves on the sea surface. Waves that are about the size of a boat make the vessel bob up and down. Very large ships are generally not affected much by waves. Tiny floating objects aren’t bothered by waves at all. Importantly, the reverse is also true: the wave carries on, undisturbed by the tiniest objects.

So imagine a material that is made up of plastic organised on a nano-scale. By playing with the plastic used, researchers at DukeUniversity have created cloaking materials that let light pass around an object. The effect is an invisible material.

Of course, this has attracted the attention of defence industries. In architecture, the technology could be used to make structural supports ‘disappear’ or to make a room look like it’s all window.

The technology isn’t limited to light. Another promising metamaterial application is to use them to steer seismic waves around a building to stop earthquake damage. Meanwhile, smart phone producers are quietly incorporating metamaterial technology into the next generation of phones. Applications already include highly-efficient wireless charging.

More information on intriguing metamaterials is here.

Images courtesy of Duke University.