Bringing Meta to Real Life
The hidden tech behind invisibility cloaks, wireless electricity and much more
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While the internet is buzzing with all things Metaverse related right now, there’s another ‘meta’ word worth learning about. Metamaterials are a unique class of functional materials that when arranged in specific nanoscale patterns and structures are able to turn narratives into reality. Here’s what you need to know about them and how they can potentially change the world as we know it.
What is a Metamaterial?
More specifically, metamaterials are composed of normal composite materials such as metal and plastics and derive their properties from the structures that they are placed in. The exact shape, orientation and geometry gives them properties that are able to block, absorb, enhance or even bend electromagnetic waves at will. What this means is that you can now create cloaked objects that appear invisible when light is shined on it. Or you can create glasses that aren’t curved and as thin as a piece of paper.
Traditional glasses are convex or concave depending on if you are near or far sighted. This curvature is necessary in order to ensure light from all angles reach the focal point at the same time. With metamaterials, you could design the surface of the glass such that it is completely flat, but the edges of the piece of glass refract light faster than the middle.
To perhaps make this more relatable, remember back in the day when you had to move TV antennas around to pick up the best signal? By doing that, you are changing the geometry of the antenna to interact with the radio waves better. That’s pretty much what metamaterials do. By taking existing materials, and changing their geometry or the structure of the material, they are enhanced with supernatural powers.
For example, you could coat an object with certain metamaterials such that once light hits the surface it simply bounces back. This is called negative refraction. With this, it might be possible to manufacture Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak in real life.
Metamaterials aren’t just restricted to bending light and other electromagnetic waves. Here are a few of the other areas where metamaterial research is starting to take off:
Acoustics: Acoustic metamaterials can manipulate sound in the form of sonic, ultrasonic and infrasonic waves as these waves can exhibit negative refraction similar to the example above. Traditionally, acoustic panelling or soundproofing absorbs sound and turns the vibrations into heat. In the case of acoustic metamaterials, panels are designed to catch certain frequencies passing through the air and reflect them back towards their source. This in turn creates a soundproofing effect when placing a box around a speaker (example below).
Moreover, soundproofing panels can be heavy, thick and ruin the aesthetics of a room. With acoustic metamaterials, it is possible to design solutions that can be applied directly to loud machinery, or even embedded within the walls of a cubicle.
Structural: Aerospace and automotive construction involve finding the most durable but lightest material that exists in order to improve aerodynamic ability without sacrificing safety. To date, one of the lightest materials created, Aerogel, is used in a variety of applications such as in tennis racquets and in insulation but is unfortunately brittle if placed under pressure. Structural metamaterials are just as light as Aerogel, but 10,000 times stiffer. The new material uses a ceramic-polymer hybrid and is created using micro-stereolithography (a form of microscopic 3D printing) and is shaped as micro-lattices.
Making more things Meta
The global rollout of 5G networks presents a unique opportunity for metamaterials to be used at scale. 5G networks operate by using higher radio frequencies that are less cluttered compared to 4G and 3G networks. As a result, higher bands are faster at carrying information, but can be easily blocked by physical objects such as trees and buildings. Currently, this problem is solved by multiple input and output antennas to boost signals and by also placing small transmitters on buildings and other tall structures. By incorporating metamaterials, it is possible to use their refractive properties to beam steer these antennas without any moving parts making them more durable and increasing performance of the network.
In a similar vein, metamaterials can be used in autonomous vehicles to help improve the performance and durability of LiDAR systems. LiDAR sensors emit light waves in short pulses and calculate the time it takes for these pulses to return to the sensor to determine the distance travelled. This process is repeated millions of times per second to create a real-time 3D map of the environment. Currently, to generate the field of vision, LiDARs spin large parts of the sensor to access different angles. By deploying metamaterials in a LiDAR unit, it’s possible to cut out all moving parts due to the refractive properties of a metamaterial. As a result, this improves performance, and also reduces the failure rate of these units.
Most importantly, however, is the rise of nanolithography (the art of printing nano structures on materials) and additive manufacturing. Given how miniaturised semiconductors have become in the last few years has led to new nanolithography tools being created that can print the nanostructures required for metamaterials to acquire their unique properties. As a result it is getting cheaper to produce metamaterials in larger quantities. Furthermore, some early metamaterial antenna patents are scheduled to expire between 2024 and 2028. Once this occurs, there is likely to be a rapid increase in the number of companies willing and able to develop metamaterials at scale.
Who are the most Meta companies in this space?
Metamaterials are an incredibly niche space, with only a few startups operating in the space. Interestingly most are tied to an incubator/VC fund called Intellectual Ventures (IV). Through their Invention Science Fund, IV has created a platform solution for metamaterial scientists and researchers to build on top of. IV aims to help scientists and researchers overcome traditional hurdles of commercialisation and crafting business models around their research.
Kymeta - incubated and spun out from Intellectual Ventures and funded by Bill Gates, Kymeta is currently using metamaterials to build a flat-panel electronically steered antenna. Its intended use is to ensure full connectivity to mobile satellite and terrestrial services whilst on the move, which is useful for defense, public safety and commercial vehicles that need robust connectivity in all conditions.
Using metamaterials allows Kymeta to design their antenna in a non-traditional manner. Unlike a phased array antenna which can be clunky and cumbersome, Kymeta is able to reduce the footprint of the antenna into a single flat panel that can be easily attached to the roof of a vehicle. The reduction in footprint doesn’t reduce its performance, as it actually improves with increased scanning. Moreover, the antenna consumes minimal power whilst in use and can leverage existing power systems.
The metamaterials used allow Kymeta to use software to precisely implement and control the pointing and polarisation of it’s holographic beam forming technology. To complete the package, Kymeta have also released a hybrid satellite-cellular connectivity service to ensure it’s satellite is able to perform optimally.
Lumotive - also funded by Bill Gates and incubated by Intellectual Ventures is Lumotive, a company that is using metamaterials to further LiDAR and automotive driving technology.
As mentioned above, LiDAR systems use spinning parts to widen their field of vision. In the case of Lumotive, they use electronic beam steering to first scan the environment, and then if needed specifically target potential obstacles and deterrents with the majority of it’s resolution to generate a better quality image of it’s surroundings. Furthermore, targeted illumination can improve the estimation of direction and speed of the vehicle.
As mentioned above, metamaterial technology is getting cheaper and more accessible. In the case of Lumotive, it’s tech comes in the form of a reflective semiconductor chip that has nano antennas fabricated on top to manipulate the light and liquid crystal and coating applied, meaning it can be likened to producing an LCD panel.
Emrod - is a New Zealand based company working on technology that will allow electricity to be wirelessly beamed from different places.
The technology for this to happen has actually existed for a while. Essentially, a transmitting antenna transforms electricity into microwave energy which is an electromagnetic wave. It then focuses this wave into a cylindrical beam and is sent through a series of relays until it hits a rectenna (receiving antenna) which converts it back into electricity.
Whilst this has been possible before, it wasn’t commercially viable. However using metamaterials, the company is able to more efficiently convert the microwave energy back into electricity. Previously, there was a loss of energy during the transmission and final conversion stages. With this current method, the relays act as lenses which are able to extend the beam beyond the line of sight using metamaterials making it a lossless exercise. Overall, the system’s efficiency is roughly 70% making it economically viable in rural areas or during natural disasters which are expected to be the core use cases for this technology.
Currently, the company’s prototype can send a few watts of energy over 40 meters, however expect to be able to send 100 times more power over longer distances using the same technology.
Meta Material Inc - the aptly named Meta Materials Inc (MM) is spread across a wide variety of industries from 5G communications to medical devices with a goal of being a platform company partnering with OEMs.
MM have created a transparent conductive film made of an invisible metal mesh called Nanoweb. The mesh is created from silver, aluminum, platinum, copper and nickel with the structure and geometry of the mesh allowing it to be highly conductive and transparent. Interestingly, any metal can be used to create the mesh, with the geometrical design of the mesh dictating its properties.
The use cases for Nanoweb are wide ranging, including transparent antennas which can be integrated into windows and vehicle windshields, defogging and deicing glass windows, and in phone and tablet screens where it can reduce haze and glare whilst also improving conductivity and flexibility of the glass.
When will Meta turn into reality?
As you can see the metamaterials space is nascent, fragmented and largely underserved with much of its academic research not being commercialised. Though Intellectual Ventures have done a great job in kick starting this industry, efforts towards making this technology and the potential use cases more accessible would go a long way towards drawing more attention from the general public.
Given the issues around patents and barriers to starting, it’s likely that the metamaterials industry will remain semi-stagnant until 2024. In the interim, hopefully more mainstream businesses such as automotive manufacturers, and telecommunications companies can adopt metamaterial enabled solutions in their products. If this occurs, then it’s likely we see a huge burst of commercialisation post-2024. If not, then it’s likely the industry remains under the radar until another catalyst comes to the fore.