The Smallest Frontier

Metamaterials, a creation of science, don't occur naturally. In order to create the minute structures required to redirect electromagnetic waves, scientists employ nanotechnology. Read How Nanotechnology Works to learn all about the world's smallest machines.

Metamaterials: Bending Light Waves

Next, let's slip into an invisibility cloak made from metamaterials.

Metamaterials offer a more compelling vision of invisibility technology, without the need for multiple projectors and cameras. First conceptualized by Russian physicist Victor Veselago in 1967, these tiny, artificial structures are smaller than the wavelength of light (they have to be to divert them) and exhibit negative electromagnetic properties that affect how an object interacts with electromagnetic fields.

Natural materials all have a positive refractive index, and this dictates how light waves interact with them. Refractivity stems in part from chemical composition, but internal structure plays an even more important role. If we alter the structure of a material on a small enough scale, we can change the way they refract incoming waves -- even forcing a switch from positive to negative refraction.

Remember, images reach us via light waves. Sounds reaches us via sound waves. If you can channel these waves around an object, you can effectively hide it from view or sound. Imagine a small stream. If you stick a teabag full of red dye into the flowing water, its presence would be apparent downstream, thanks to the way it altered the water's hue, taste and smell. But what if you could divert the water around the teabag?

In 2006, Duke University's David Smith took an earlier theory posed by English theoretical physicist John Pendry and used it to create a metamaterial capable of distorting the flow of microwaves. Smith's metamaterial fabric consisted of concentric rings containing electronic microwave distorters. When activated, they steer frequency-specific microwaves around the central portion of the material.

Obviously humans don't see in the microwave spectrum, but the technology demonstrated that energy waves could be routed around an object. Imagine a cloak that can divert a third grader's straw-fired spitball, move it around the wearer and allow it to continue on the other side as if its trajectory had taken it, unopposed, straight through the person in the cloak. Now how much more of a stretch would it be to divert a rock? A bullet?

Smith's metamaterials proved the method. The recipe to invisibility lay in adapting it to different waves.

More on metamaterials next.