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August 7, 2013

Exotic optics: Metamaterial world

07 August 2013 by Lee Billings Engineered structures with bizarre optical properties are set to migrate out of the laboratory […]

07 August 2013 by Lee Billings

Engineered structures with bizarre optical properties are set to migrate out of the laboratory and into the marketplace.

Metamaterial elements etched from gold and silicon allow this structure to rapidly alter its ability to transmit or reflect light.

Metamaterial elements etched from gold and silicon allow this structure to rapidly alter its ability to transmit or reflect light.

Tom Driscoll would be happy if he never heard the phrase ‘Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak’ again. But he knows he will. The media can’t seem to resist using it when they report the latest advances in metamaterials — arrays of minuscule ‘elements’ that bend, scatter, transmit or otherwise shape electromagnetic radiation in ways that no natural material can. It is true that metamaterials could, in principle, route light around objects and render them invisible, not unlike the cloak of a certain fictional wizard. And many metamaterials researchers are trying to make cloaking a reality, not least because the military has eagerly funded the development of such capabilities.

However, if such applications ever come to pass it will be decades from now. Technologies closer to commercialization are of more interest to Driscoll, a physicist who oversees metamaterials commercialization at Intellectual Ventures, a patent-aggregation firm in Bellevue, Washington. Applications such as cheaper satellite communications, thinner smartphones and ultrafast optical data processing are “where metamaterials are poised to make a huge impact”, he says.

Researchers still face some daunting challenges, he adds—notably, finding cheap ways to fabricate and manipulate metamaterial elements on a scale of nanometres. But the first metamaterial-based products are expected to come onto the market in a year or so. And, not long after that, Driscoll expects that average consumers will start to enjoy the benefits, such as faster, cheaper Internet connectivity on board planes and from mobile phones. Such applications, he says, will move from being the stuff of peoples’ fantasies “to becoming things they can’t contemplate living without”.

Read more at Nature.com

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