How metamaterials could one day bring the impossible to life

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Image credit: Duke

Metamaterials is one of the newest, most dynamic and exciting areas of science.  They enable scientists to change the natural properties of materials, pushing the boundaries of possibility to achieve what has never been done before. Dr Irina Khromova is one of the foremost experts on metamaterials and she discusses how metamaterials could be used now and in the future. 

Metamaterials first came into public consciousness through the concept of invisibility cloaking – and while making objects invisible using metamaterials is certainly not the only or most practical application for the science, there are many potential commercial benefits to explore.  

Scientists first started to look at practical uses for metamaterials in the late 20th century. This new branch of science involves changing the behaviour of waves, for example sound or light, by making them interact with purposefully designed and artificially-built structures. For the waves in question,  such a structure looks and feels like a material with unusual properties not found in conventional materials.   

How metamaterials are being used today

Once appearing to defy the laws of physics, metamaterials science is now opening up numerous possibilities and challenging the thinking around the design and capabilities of different technologies. Using metamaterials can even bring improvements or efficiencies to existing technology by introducing features that have not been achievable before.

According to Grand View Research, the global metamaterials market will be worth $1.35 billion USD by 2025.  Already used in industries such as aerospace and defence, metamaterials will become widely adopted across many vertical industries including construction, consumer electronics, medical and energy. The report projects that the use of metamaterials in consumer electronics will grow at a CAGR of 21% from 2017 to 2025, and attributes the opportunities for product enhancement as a key reason for this.

Many people were first exposed to metamaterials through the concept of invisibility cloaking, with media outlets jumping on the idea that metamaterials could be responsible for a Harry Potter type invisibility cloak. Although this is more associated with the world of wizardry, the science behind using metamaterials to create cloaking is real. 

One of the newest, most commercially successful applications of metamaterials is to create noise reduction barriers, with a view to using them on motorways and major roads. Traditionally, noise barriers made of conventional materials fail to block low-frequency sounds and degrade with time as moisture builds up inside them.  Inevitably, with so much new urban development and the continued growth of transport infrastructure, there will be increasing demand for materials that reduce or cut out the sound of road and air traffic. Metamaterials-based solutions promise to be much more robust and longer lasting, offering significant opportunity in this area of engineering. 

Future uses of metamaterials

Scientists are also making significant progress into honing the properties of materials to create protective shields against radiation and seismic activity. Barriers made of metamaterials would absorb or deflect seismic waves, thus reducing the risks and impact posed by earthquakes. This works very differently from traditional materials so it is entirely possible that future cities could be built using materials that offer more robust protection against earthquakes and other natural disasters than ever before.    

Apart from shielding and absorbing waves, metamaterials can also help us tap off some of the energy these waves carry. Metamaterials can be designed to trap, convert and recycle this energy. With prospective application in advanced solar batteries and residual radio-noise harvesting, metamaterials are in the spotlight of breakthrough greener technologies.

With the ability to control the propagation of waves, metamaterials are also enabling scientists to take power and data transfer to the next level. Specific types of waves, such as magneto-inductive waves, existing in the metamaterial, can carry power in a controlled manner. This phenomenon has paved the way for scientists to significantly expand wireless charging for mobile phones and other electronic devices. For an individual, a metamaterials-based charger will mean hassle-free charging on large surfaces – one can just drop a device onto the charging surface without the need to worry about alignment. This is a huge step towards making wireless power as ubiquitous and convenient as modern data connectivity.

Including many aspects of physics and engineering, metamaterials offer new possibilities for developing technologies for smart cities, houses and transport and could help reduce costs, increase security and safety and lessen environmental impact all in one go. In addition, the design of future medical and health technologies could employ metamaterials to help enhance product features, particularly where personal data security is paramount or where very high-quality imaging is needed.

Metamaterials have opened up a new treasure chest of possibilities for safer, greener and more effective and efficient technologies. If metamaterials technologies keep up the pace, metamaterials will be used extensively yet unobtrusively in our daily lives. Undoubtedly, these are exciting times for metamaterials and the next decade will carve out their place in the world of technology and engineering.

Dr. Irina Khromova, Head of Science and Technology at Metaboards 

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