This article is part of our new series, ElectricCheck to see how rapid advances in technology are transforming our lives.
Imagine operating a computer by moving your hand through the air like Tony Stark did in “Iron Man”. Or use a smartphone to magnify an object as well as the device the character of Harrison Ford uses in “Blade Runner”. Or a next-generation video meeting where augmented reality glasses make it possible to see 3-D avatars. Or a generation of autonomous cars capable of driving safely in city traffic.
These advances and a host of other advances on the horizon are possible thanks to metamaterials, making it possible to control light beams as easily as electric computer chips do.
The term metamaterial refers to a wide variety of manufactured materials including structures finer than the wavelengths of visible light, radio waves and other types of electromagnetic radiation. Together, they are now giving engineers extraordinary control over the design of new types of supersonic sensors that range from telescopes to infrared thermometers.
“We are stepping in,” said Alan Huang, chief technology officer at Terabit Corporation, a Silicon Valley consulting firm, who did his initial research in optical computing during his 12 years at Bell Labs. consumption stage of metamaterials. “It will go far beyond cameras and projectors and lead to things we didn’t expect. It is really a desirable field. “
The first consumer products to utilize inexpensive metamaterials will be smartphones, which will improve their performance, but the ability to control light waves in new ways will soon enable products as well. like augmented reality glasses that overlap real-world computer images.
The technologies themselves are not new. In the early 19th century, French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel proposed the idea of flattening and brightening optical lenses using a series of concentric grooves to focus light. One important innovation behind metamaterials is that they are constructed with subcomponents that are smaller than the wavelengths of the type of radiation they are designed to manipulate.
For example, to make a lens out of a metamaterial, you cut silicon (just glass) thin enough that it’s transparent, and then you can immerse the structures into a thin layer of glass to focus the light as it is. pass.
One of the first to realize the commercial potential of metamaterials was Nathan Myhrvold, a physicist formerly head of Microsoft Research.
“When I first did this, it caused quite a bit of controversy,” says Myhrvold. “There are scientists who say they are all bedding.”
Since then, Mr. Myhrvold has founded half a dozen companies based on metamaterial technology. Several companies are chasing the consumer optics market, including Lumotive, a Seattle-based company that is developing lidar imaging systems without moving parts.
Lidars uses lasers to create accurate maps of surrounding objects at a distance of hundreds of yards. Lids are widely used by companies that are developing self-driving vehicles, and today they are mostly laser beam rapid-spinning mechanical systems for mapping.
In contrast, Lumotive uses the liquid crystal display technology originally developed for flat panels to “control” the laser light beam. As a result, the system is much less expensive than mechanical lidar, making it possible to consider them for a host of new applications, such as delivery drones, self-driving cars and robots. Mobile home like a smart vacuum cleaner.
Since the auto industry is filled with lidar manufacturers, company Lumotive officials have refocused their efforts on new markets for home and industrial robots. They have yet to announce customers.
“We’re going in a direction where one of the other attributes we have is the ability to scale these things down to a very small size, which makes us unique,” said Bill Colleran, chief executive. and Lumotive co-founder.
Another company trying to tap into the potential of metamaterials is Metalenz, founded in 2017 by Robert Devlin and Federico Capasso, which is currently working on a new way to make optical lenses using the technology. make cheap and powerful computer chips.
Many types of metamaterials are being produced using the same equipment that makes computer chips. That’s important because it introduces a generation of inexpensive chips that harness light, in the same way that computer chips could harness electricity in the 1960s. That innovation led to a consumer industry. Big new: Electronic clocks, followed by video games and then personal computers, all of which evolved thanks to the ability to engrave circuits on silicon.
By relying on microchip technology, it is possible to cheaply fabricate tens of thousands or even millions of two-dimensional lenses capable of bending light based on samples of transparent materials embedded on their surfaces with limbs. charge only a fraction of the cost of today’s optical lenses.
The question these companies have to answer is whether they can provide enough improved performance and lower costs to convince manufacturers to switch away from their existing components (in this case cheap plastic lenses).
The obvious first step for the new technology is to replace plastic lenses in smartphones, something Metalenz will start working on next year, but that’s just the first mass market for metamaterials. There will also be applications to control how we interact with computers and car safety systems, as well as improve the mobility of inexpensive robots in crowded environments, says Devlin.
Apple is reportedly working on a design for a system that will transform many smartphone functions into what will ultimately be thin and light glass.
“One of the main problems is mass and weight,” said Gary Bradski, chief technician at OpenCV.ai, a developer of free machine vision software. “I mean how much weight can your nose hold?”
Brightness is an advantage for Metalenz, which has demonstrated that the ultra-thin lenses made of two-dimensional silicon have a super-transparent structure, each smaller than the wavelength of light. However, making lenses like integrated circuits offer other important advantages.
“One of the most powerful things you get out of metamaterials or superfaces is the ability to actually reduce system complexity while improving overall performance,” says Devlin. “So the medical or scientific apps that were locked in the lab because they were really big, bulky, and expensive will now be offered at a price in the form you can take it for. to everyone’s phone. “
An early possibility would be to make it possible to place sensors right behind a smartphone screen, making it possible to use the entire surface area of the phone. It will also simplify “structured light” sensors that project dot patterns used to perform facial recognition.
Microelectronics’s most powerful property is its ability to shrink microchips, making them faster, more powerful, and less expensive for decades. In a similar fashion, metamaterials will transform the way designers exploit light beams.
For example, scientists working on an advanced millimeter telescope scheduled for installation at the Simons Observatory in Chile next year have switched to using metamaterials for the tiles that will cover the inside of the glass. astronomy to collect almost all stray light. Mark Devlin (no relation to the founder of Metalenz), professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the photons that fall on the surface of the brick are trapped by a surface of the super conical structure. small. telescope.
“Bricks are light, cheap, easy to install and they won’t fall off,” he said.