An interesting article entitled “Exotic optics: Metamaterial world” was recently published in the science journal Nature. This timely article discusses how arrays of tiny engineered structures, called metamaterials, are set to move from the laboratory into the marketplace.
Recognizing the growing commercial opportunity, the Hardware Systems Laboratory (HSL) at PARC started a new metamaterial initiative this fall.
PARC, like other forward-looking organizations, recognizes that this technology is poised to disrupt industries, create entirely new markets, and change society. The uniqueness of metamaterials is that they can be designed to exhibit exotic optical properties not found in natural materials. The ability to design our own “atoms” and access new functionalities opens the door to a new world of possibilities— from realizing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak to constructing the perfect lens that can resolve features smaller than the wavelength of light.
Beyond cloaking and perfect imaging, which are still in their infancy, practical applications range from simplification of satellite connections needed for instant broadband service anywhere in the world, to creation of airport security scanners that use compressed microwave images without a lens or moving parts. The prospect for commercialization of metamaterial technologies are so tantalizing that patent-aggregation firm Intellectual Ventures and business mogul Bill Gates made significant investments in a start-up company called Kymeta — which recently closed $50 Million Series C financing and signed an agreement with O3b — to develop flat panel metamaterials antennas for high-speed Internet. Recently, venture capital firm Quantum Wave Fund invested $7 million in companies seeking to commercialize technologies including metamaterials and quantum information processing. Metamaterials are not limited to commercial applications— they are also being exploited in the defense industry for electronic warfare, signature control, and shockwave mitigation.
What are the hurdles to commercializing metamaterials?
The first challenge in building a sustainable business around metamaterials is to identify a real need where a metamaterial platform is deemed to be the best possible solution.
The second challenge is to mass-manufacture metamaterials cost-effectively. One of the drawbacks of metamaterials is the fact that their building blocks are smaller than the wavelength of light. This implies that any applications in the visible and infrared regions (e.g. a solar concentrator or laser collimator) will require structures at the submicron scale (>50× smaller than a human’s hair), which are hard and costly to fabricate. Even at longer length-scales, in the microwave spectrum, the ability to realize large-area and conformal structures at low-cost is still challenging.
With an extensive intellectual property (IP) portfolio of materials and printing technologies, a long-standing culture of innovation, and a world class team of experts, PARC is uniquely positioned to bring disruptive metamaterials technology platforms to market. One key advantage is that PARC can use its extensive ongoing work with government and commercial partners to provide market focus, and identify the right applications. PARC researchers are already working on problems that really exist and matter. And, it turns out that for some of these problems, metamaterials were benchmarked against other innovative solutions and found to be superior.
With respect to fabricating metamaterials, researchers at PARC have built competencies in manufacturing, new materials development, and 3D printing for decades— these core competencies give PARC a leading edge and will support the development of metamaterial fabrication techniques that are truly scalable.
To learn more or work with PARC’s metamaterials program, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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