The Waves of the Future May Bend Around Metamaterials

This article orginally appeared in the New York Times Science.

Almost half a century after Dustin Hoffman was taken aside in “The Graduate” and given the famous “one word” line about the future, it may be time to update the script again. And metamaterials appear to have the same potential to transform entire industries. Over the past 15 years or so, scientists have learned how to construct materials that bend light waves, as well as radar, radio, sound and even seismic waves, in ways that do not naturally occur.

First theorized in 1967 by the Russian physicist Victor Veselago and invented in 1999 by a group led by the physicist David R. Smith, the new design approach was first seen as a curiosity that hinted at science fiction applications like invisibility cloaks.

But today, researchers have gained a better understanding of the science and are generating innovations in an array of fields, including radio antennas, radar, cosmetics, soundproofing and walls that help protect against earthquakes and tsunamis.

Last year, the aircraft manufacturer Airbus announced that it was joining with Lamda Guard, a Canadian company, to test a metamaterial-based coating for cockpit windows to protect pilots in commercial aircraft from being blinded by laser pointers.

A key innovation behind metamaterials is that they are constructed with subcomponents that are smaller than the wavelength of the type of radiation they are designed to manipulate. The precise, often-microscopic patterns can then be used to manipulate the waves in unnatural ways.

The implications of these new materials can be seen in two prototype radar antennas being designed at Echodyne, a start-up firm here that has been funded with backing from Bill Gates, a Microsoft co-founder, and Madrona Venture Group.

There are obvious markets for the technology in automotive safety and self-driving cars. Google’s advanced experimental vehicles use a costly mechanical laser-based device called a lidar to create an instantaneous high-resolution map of objects around the car. Based on a rapidly spinning laser, Google’s lidars still cost roughly $8,000. The radars being designed by Echodyne may soon be able to create similar maps at a much lower cost.

Echodyne is the third metamaterials company to be spun out of Intellectual Ventures, an investment and patent firm created by Nathan Myhrvold, a physicist who was Microsoft’s chief technology officer. Two other firms, Kymeta and Evolv Technology, are working on other metamaterial-based applications.

Evolv is pursuing higher-performance airport-security-scanning technology, and Kymeta recently announced a partnership with Intelsat to design land-based and satellite-based intelligent antennas that would greatly increase the capacity and speed of next-generation satellite Internet services.

Xiang Zhang, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, runs a laboratory that has pioneered a number of applications for metamaterials, including so-called optical “superlenses” that may one day surpass the power of today’s microscopes.

Dr. Zhang says he hears from many military contractors and commercial companies that are interested in pursuing metamaterial applications.

Several years ago, he said, he received several calls from what he thought was Loral Space & Communications, a military contractor. He then learned that the caller was the French cosmetics and beauty firm L’Oréal, which was interested in metamaterials that might be used to change appearance or to create a more effective sunblock.

Dr. Zhang and others are pursuing applications that could drastically lower the cost and increase the performance of optical computer networks.

In 2012, the Berkeley Nanosciences and Nanoengineering Institute published a paper with South Korean scientists describing a metamaterial-based electro-optical modulator made from a sheet of graphene just a single atom thick that was able to switch lightwaves at terahertz frequencies.

More recently, a group at City College of New York, led by the physicist Vinod Menon, demonstrated light emission from ultrafast-switching LEDs based on metamaterials. Together, such innovations could make possible optical computer networks far faster than today’s gigabit networks.

Indeed metamaterials are still finding their way into new fields. Papers have recently been published that explore the idea of using metamaterial-based “walls” to dampen the seismic waves in earthquakes or the effects of tsunamis.

In 2013, scientists at the French construction firm Menard published a paper on, an automated electronic archive for research articles, describing a test of a novel way of counteracting the effects of an earthquake from a metamaterial grid of empty cylindrical columns bored into soil. They reported that they were able to measure a significant dampening of a simulated earthquake with the array of columns.

New applications for metamaterials are certain to emerge in coming years, Dr. Zhang said.

"It's beyond our imagination right now,” he said. “But we will push the frontiers."