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Metamaterials research wins £2.5 million investment

30 Apr 2014

UK Government’s Research Council backs 5-year, multi-university R&D projects.

Research into using metamaterials in optics has already produced the possibility of an invisibility cloak. To take these ideas further into allied areas of advanced materials £2.5 million is being invested by the UK's Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council.

Researchers will apply concepts to fields such as acoustic metamaterials, thermal cloaking and to engineer designer metamaterials with specific properties. UK scientists based at Imperial College London, the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University will work on the five year study, that is positioned to span, and take advantage of, both mathematics and physics.

Professor Richard Craster, project lead, from Imperial College London, said, “This is an unusual and novel grant in metamaterials as it is centred around mathematical concepts and theory but nonetheless with considerable input from physics.

“The collaboration with our colleagues from the physics group, where metamaterials were originally developed, will provide unique insight and access to cutting edge ideas from physics that mathematicians can turn into solid rigorous theory. Conversely theoretical advances from mathematics can be fed directly and swiftly back into experiments and design.”

Earthquake proof?

Metamaterials have unusual properties not seen in natural materials, for example light entering a metamaterial slab can be bent in the opposite direction to that expected. UK Universities and Science Minister David Willetts commented, “Advanced materials is one of the eight great technologies of the future with the potential to propel UK growth. This investment will help us to develop further applications for metamaterials and reap the benefits of advanced materials for the wider UK economy.”

Extending the concepts into thermal metamaterials could ultimately benefit laptop users. Currently, for example, computer chips in laptops become hot, limiting the amount of transistors and computer power, which can be put in a chip; thermal transfer could overcome this issue. “If we can manage the power of maths to transfer this concept from electromagnetism to ultimately an equation system that describes the flow of heat then we have a very powerful application,” said Professor Stefan Maier, Imperial College London.

Metamaterials could provide a wide range of real-world applications where waves play a role, even potentially cloaking buildings from earthquakes. French collaborators on the project are already using cloaking principles in seismic wave systems to try and ‘hide’ buildings from ground vibrations caused, for example, by trains.

Using multi-scale elastic metamaterials, large complex structures such as bridges or tall buildings can be designed to withstand earthquakes, and their possible swaying can be controlled. Novel shields and filters of elastic waves can be designed to divert the energy of earthquakes away from buildings and protected areas.

'Perfect lens'

Creating a so-called perfect lens using metamaterials could be used in bio-imaging applications. A perfect lens would enable light microscopes to see objects smaller than a single wave-length of light, such as a single virus. Currently only an electron microscope can image to this resolution with the drawback that cells need to be dead or frozen. A perfect lens based on metamaterials would allow scientists to break the so-called Rayleigh limit of diffraction.

The researchers will also look at the constraints of fabrication methods and use sophisticated tools of mathematics to develop optimal structures. Computer codes that take imperfections into account in an efficient way will be developed to allow the modelling and design of metamaterials to proceed together. By the end of the research program, the scientists say they will have developed proofs of concept, which can then provide a sound basis for the next stage of implementation.

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

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