Metamaterials: Shaping the Future

Upon first glance, the word “metamaterials” seems like a made-up word out of a science fiction movie. Spell-check doesn’t even recognize it. On the contrary, however, metamaterials are quite real; what makes them unusual is that they have the ability to bend waves (of light, sound, and more) in ways that cannot be achieved by any natural means. They derive this quality not from some unique and rare ingredient but from their painstaking engineering, which is performed on a level even smaller than that of the wavelengths of the waves they are designed to control. Their raw materials, however, are mainly common metals and plastics.

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Metamaterials, the idea for which was first proposed in 1967, are now opening up the possibility for major innovations in a wide variety of different fields. Metamaterial-based radar antennas are poised to become commercially viable successors to the laser-based lidars used by Google’s experimental self-driving cars to sense the objects around them. Other metamaterial antennas have the potential to significantly improve the performance and decrease the cost of computer networks in the near future. Metamaterials are also being explored as the basis for new airport security technology and protective coatings for airplane windows, improved microscope lenses, and underground structures that would significantly diminish the impact of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Even the cosmetics industry has expressed an interest in metamaterials, as a potential ingredient in sunscreen–or other products “that might be used to change appearance,” according to Dr. Xiang Zhang, a professor at UC Berkeley who runs a laboratory involved in research on metamaterials.

Of the full potential of metamaterials, Dr. Zhang is quite clear: “It’s beyond our imagination right now.” In effect, only one thing is evident: whether it be by their applications currently under investigation, others that have yet to be discovered, or all of the above, metamaterials can certainly be expected to have a major impact on our world moving forward.

 

–Maria Juran, Science Editor

Posted by on March 29, 2015. Filed under World News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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