Scientists have discovered a new material that allows light to be controlled and measured in surprising ways. Wired News reports a new type of material that has scientists speaking in almost mystical terms about light.
The new substance is a “metamaterial” and it has a property called negative refraction. This means that, in theory, the material could be designed so that light would curve around an object made of the material, making the object invisible.
According to David Schurig, an electrical and computer engineering professor at North Carolina State University, “These materials [metamaterials] would comprise a complete — almost magical — mastery over light… they would enable… arbitrary control over the richest information channel [light] humans employ.”
A Princeton team developed the metamaterial. It currently works with only infrared light, which falls between microwaves and visible light. However, by shrinking the molecular structures, it could, in theory, also work with visible light.
The potential uses are remarkable, and extend far beyond gee-whiz optical illusions or next-generation laser light shows. Metamaterial holds tremendous promise for medical applications.
For example, every kind of particle has an optical signature. “When you breathe out, there are all kinds of chemicals in there,” said Claire Gmachl, director of Mid-InfraRed Technologies for Health and the Environment, a research center bringing together universities and companies. “So the material could be used in detectors for medical analysis.”
For instance, modern-day Breathalyzer devices can measure alcohol levels. However, many more chemicals are present in exhaled breath than Breathalyzers can measure. By optically detecting and displaying specific chemicals, the new material could potentially be used to measure the efficiency of oxygen absorption and even the presence of chemicals that indicate an imminent heart attack.
The potential is for far greater sensitivity than with today’s sensors, which must contact the target particle(s). In addition to breath analysis, I foresee the following uses for metamaterial:
- Testing fermented products such as wine and beer for aging and maturity
- Evaluating readiness of crops for harvest
- Enabling computers to analyze a scent, digitize it and then send it to another computer for reproduction
- Developing a new kind of microscope that could examine individual molecules.
I’ll be watching metamaterial for investing possibilities.
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